Few sports get so hung up and insecure about what they’re not like professional golf. That’s become especially true in this current moment, when everyone seems to have a claim about what’s broken and a solution for what could be better. It’s too slow, too big, too cheap, too opulent, too tedious, and too monotonous with fields full of players indistinguishable from the next, save for a few superstars.
Those critiques may be accurate, but can overshadow what pro golf already is at its most critical moments. The 2022 U.S. Open did not have Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy running away from the field in dominant fashion, or Jordan Spieth scrambling to some miracle save and victory. If you’re hung up with the insecurities, you might lament that. But this championship had to apologize for nothing. It was pro golf, as a competition product, at its strongest, strong enough that it didn’t need Tiger or Rory or some dramatic controversy to have you walking off feeling like you watched something historic and special. No Laying Up succinctly tweeted, “holy shit man, what a golf tournament” when it finally ended. At The Country Club, the main characters and crowd went from buzzing to exhaling to still buzzing again until Matt Fitzpatrick had disappeared into the post-victory de rigueur car wash that every champion goes through.
The best players at these majors, the talents who’ve been doing it under this kind of exam, rose to the top of a leaderboard and then put on a show on a stage that was a co-star. Based on recent months and majors, Fitzpatrick, Will Zalatoris, and Scottie Scheffler are three names you’d expect to see contending at the end. The Country Club was not going to allow for fakery or a one-week hot streak. There were appearances from Rory, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, and others whose talent we’ve come to expect to see at the most consequential championships, but maybe don’t have the peak stuff like the other three right now. Those with the skills we want rewarded shined through, going back-and-forth on a weekend when golf as its best competition product got the chance to push the ongoing battle for the sport’s structure off to the side for a (very brief) moment. We’ll quickly get back to all the other problems and proposed solutions.
Photo: USGA/James Gilbert
The stage helped, with Brookline demanding something more than what we get from week-to-week in pro golf and generating amphitheaters around the property. It’s a routing that creates several gathering points, shared tee boxes, mixing bowls, and intersections as the players move from one hole to the next. It was fantastic for fans, who crowded around and added a layer of anxiety for the players when stakes were the highest. On Sunday, Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris nearly stepped on McIlroy’s tee shot on the 5th hole as they walked to the 3rd tee, Fitz giving a head nod and a quick appraisal of the scene before he’d arrive at the same spot a half-hour later with arguably the shot of the week at that hole. These brief moments of convergence happened continuously throughout the Open, adding an edginess to a course many high level pros and amateurs label as the hardest they’ve ever played. There’s a history — you may have heard about Ouimet, Strange, Leonard etc. — at the course, too, which amplifies the stakes and resonance that a major already brings in spades.
It’s always been hard to articulate the ethereal component that makes majors feel so much more important and weighty. But they are the clear instances when the gravity and value can be measured in an emotional blender it puts elite talents in before they ever hit a shot. That happened again this week. “You then sit in there stewing with it the whole night, the whole evening, and I slept brilliant, but like you just kind of relax in and you’re still thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it,” Fitzpatrick said of the unease of waiting to play one more round for the trophy. “And you’re just trying to tell yourself, just stop. Just have a break. Just stop thinking about it. It’s not there yet. But at the same time, you kind of want to go. You want to play it like straight away. Then in the morning I’m just watching the golf. I’m like is it time to go yet? Is it time to go yet? Then the time goes, and it’s like oh, shoot, we’re ready to go now. I’d best start hitting some good shots. Hopefully I hit some good shots. There’s just a lot of stuff going on.”
What we were left with was as challenging and tense an atmosphere as you could create, and the best players with the best skills did their thing. That is something rare but present and replicable in golf — stakes, anxiety, and tension that can make the absolute best on the planet sick. Zalatoris, the heartbreaking loser of the PGA Championship playoff a month ago and quickly becoming a fixture on these majors leaderboards, said Saturday night that something was different, had changed. “The PGA gave me a lot of belief and confidence that I belong in this situation,” he said. “There’s a difference in thinking it and then actually being in the situation and believing it.” The USGA shared an interview on Sunday with Curtis Strange, who won the U.S. Open here in 1988 for his breakthrough major title. Strange, who is one of the great redasses and hardened pros in the game’s history, is in tears with his wife in the video while narrating it, “I guess you’re never quite sure you can do it until you actually do it.” Scottie Scheffler said he woke up sick the Sunday of the Masters, crying and telling his wife, “I don’t think I am ready for this. I don’t feel like I am ready for this kind of stuff.” Shane Lowry said he started his final round at the 2019 Open, saying, “I didn’t even know going out this morning if I was good enough” before repeatedly telling his caddie throughout the final round “how nervous I was, how scared I was, how much I didn’t want to mess it up.”
The years change, but this element remains.
Photo: Jeff Haynes/USGA
Playing for a large sum of money or FedExCup points or the such-and-such trophy does not provoke that kind of exposed vulnerability we hear over and over at these most critical events. And the majors generate it, some more than others based on time and place, in a replicable way at the game’s most visible moments. The players show up, good venues are often exhibited, and we get this weekend’s U.S. Open, an illustration of the strength of golf as a competition. This is less a denigration of whatever concoction LIV comes up with, or the current PGA Tour product, so much as it is an appreciation of something that’s not those things.
The LIV vs. the PGA Tour battle is about to come roaring right back as the buzz of a U.S. Open weekend fades. Pro golf needs improvement, even if some of that is borne from an insecurity that will always have some hucksters trying to change or “grow” a game that we should accept some might just find boring! It’s not bad to want something more for pro golf, so long as you realize what we have now, at the most significant moments, is already quite good.