On the walls of the contestants locker room at the 119th U.S. Open are a handful of quotes from past U.S. Open champions printed on sepia-toned poster board along with a black-and-white headshot of the winner and meant to inspire. One is from Jack Nicklaus, who won the first of the six U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach Golf Links and for whom the championship trophy is now named.
“I always thought the US Open made a man out of you more than any other tournament,” he said.
When Nicklaus won in 1972, his 290 total was the second-highest winning score since World War II.
"Nicklaus was the only guy who didn't stagger off Pebble that year, hollow-eyed and choking and wondering why he hadn't gone into some other line of work,” wrote Jim Murray in The Los Angeles Times.
The US Open is played on a different course each year, but they all share shocking similarities: Single-file fairways, tough rough and greens as slick as oil. Par is supposed to be a commendable score. Moans that the course is unfair are as much a rite of June as weddings.
At the Open, fun is supposed to be out, and fear is in. This year, Pebble has played more like the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. A heat wave early in the week caused the USGA to turn on the faucet and apply too much water to the course. Spongy fairways and soft greens took the bite out of Pebble when its notorious winds never really blew. Nevertheless, no one can dispute that it has again succeeded in identifying the best player this week, as it did in 1982 when Tom Watson chipped in at 17 and burst into spontaneous dance around the green.
“It isn’t easy to win the Open. If it had come easily, I wouldn’t have this great feeling of accomplishment that I now have,” Watson said.
Graeme McDowell in 2010 and Rory McIlroy in 2011 have both enjoyed that feeling and have done enough of the right things to tee off on Sunday afternoon with a chance to win. So has two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka, who is bidding to be the first three-peat champion since Willie Anderson more than a century ago.
“I’m good at this patience game,’’ said Koepka, who entered the final round trailing by four strokes in a tie for third.
McDowell knows better than most the importance of hanging around. During his victory in 2010, Dustin Johnson ripped the lead away from him on Saturday, but McDowell kept in striking distance and a day later Johnson succumbed to the pressure and ballooned to 82. But McDowell concedes he may have won a few more majors if he did a better job of sticking to his game plan.
“I’ve been in a few majors now where I didn’t hang around because I thought it was all over. The guys that won several of these [majors] understand that anything can happen,” said McDowell, who’s 4 under and tied for ninth entering the final round.
Geoff Ogilvy was the benefactor in 2006 at Winged Foot when Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson each made double bogeys on the 72nd hole to gift-wrap the trophy to the Australian. The best at hanging around and capitalizing when there’s blood in the water? McDowell says it’s none other than Tiger Woods.
“If I could put a label on him it would be hanging around,’’ McDowell said. “And this is that type of golf course. It’s a little bit of a sleeping giant. You have to keep the ball in play and you have to keep it under these pins. That’s the sort of essence of hanging around.
“I'm going to be remembering Lytham and Olympic (sites of Opens in 2012) tomorrow when I'm out there. Because I didn't give up both back nines there, but I thought my race was run. I mentally kind of stopped executing my game plan well. Maybe started chasing.”
McIlroy expressed the same sentiment. He knows that while he may have five strokes to make up on leader Gary Woodland during the final round, only five players are in front of him and his game is good enough that he doesn’t have to force the issue. Asked whether he felt he needed to attack the first seven holes, where birdies can be made, McIlroy showed that with experience comes wisdom.
“You can't put yourself under pressure to have a crack at those holes,” he said. “You've just got to let it happen.”
Let it happen rather than make it happen. It worked for Payne Stewart, who in the words of Nicklaus "manned up" at the 1999 U.S. Open and it could be a winning philosophy on another Sunday with the Jack Nicklaus Trophy on the line.
“I never gave up. I kept playing. I kept plugging,” Stewart said at the time. “I got the job done and that means a lot to me. I’m the U.S. Open champion.”