WASHINGTON, D.C., June 14, 2011— The three most memorable U. S. Opens for me are those from 1984, 1997, and 2006. Two of those three came at Winged Foot and two of those involved a late run by Colin Montgomerie. Before Colin three-putted eighteen at Winged Foot in 2006 (after bombing in a seventy-five footer on the previous hole for birdie), he came oh so close at Congressional’ seventeenth in 1997. Moments after Tom Lehman dunked a seven-iron to fold, Colin missed a twenty-five footer to tie Els, who went on to win his second Open.
What I remember most about that Open was the level of drama for not only Montgomerie and Lehman, but Els and Jeff Maggert as well. It was an afternoon of just perfect timing as each character stepped up for a shot at hand one by one, drama unfolding live and step by step, similar to how those great Masters fourth rounds unfolded in the eighties. The drama culminated on seventeen, a long downhill par-four to a peninsula green surrounded by water.
What I also remember about that day’s events is how play on eighteen was so anti-climatic. Apparently, the USGA agreed and that will not be the case this week. The biggest change to Congressional from 1997 is that theatre of excitement formerly called seventeen will now be the final hole, and what a golf hole to finish the National Championship on.
For a variety of reasons, the old eighteen no longer exists. In its place is also a par-three, but playing 180 degrees around as the tenth hole. Most people feel a par-three should not ever be the eighteenth hole on a golf course. I have always disagreed with that notion, feeling strongly that if the land yields a par-three for the final hole, then that is always the best solution. I still feel that way for the sake of everyday golf, but have recently changed my mind when it comes to deciding an event such as the U. S. Open. Just look at the 1997 Open and this week’s event as exhibit A.
Winning a tournament such as the U. S. Open often does not identify the best golfer that week. Rather, it identifies the golfer who can overcome the most strenuous mental examination over four days. In fact, that is exactly what USGA Executive Director Mike Davis intends to accomplish this week, “We want this to be a mental test. The U. S. Open is the most rigorous, most difficult, yet fair examination of golf, both physically and mentally.” Sometimes, mental outweighs physical as the last man standing is often times the best description of a past winner (Hale Irwin in 1974, Geoff Ogilvy in 2006, both at Winged Foot). The last man standing was Ernie Els in 1997 as well.
A long iron to a small target will always challenge the world’s best golfers. A short iron will force a two to be the determining score in most cases (knowing one must make a birdie on a hole still requires precision and talent). But when fighting one’s own inner demons on the seventy-second hole, a one-shotter just does not demand enough inner strength and that is why my opinion has changed.
A par-three as the final test only really demands one shot to overcome and frankly, the winner of the Open should be required to overcome the pressure of a long tee shot and an approach in order to hoist the U. S. Open trophy as the Champion. A true mental test should require nothing less, especially with driver in one’s hands as opposed to a seven-iron. Think of all the majors that have been lost with a wayward tee shot on the last (Phil in 2006 for example, again at Winged Foot or Jean Van De Velde at Carnoustie). A long par-four or par-five demands more than just one pressure-packed shot and the reward is commensurate with the performance.
That said, I must clarify that a par-three should not be avoided out of stereotypes in golf course design. There are no rules of thumb in design. If there has to be one, it is to utilize the lay of the land to its maximum. If that means a par three as eighteen contributes to the best possible golf course, then do it. But for the final hole to determine the National Champion, let’s go with a four or five. Watch this weekend to see how the pressure combined with the stage produces one of the more memorable finishes in golf.
About Richard: Richard Mandell runs Richard Mandell Golf Architecture in Pinehurst, North Carolina (www.golf-architecture.com). Educated as a Landscape Architect at the University of Georgia (he is licensed in both North and South Carolina), Richard has close to two decades’ experience in designing new golf courses and renovating existing ones. Richard may also be the only golf architect in the world who is a certified arborist. He co-hosts a weekly golf radio talk show in Pinehurst and continues to teach a class on Golf Architecture at North Carolina State University which he started in 1997. Mr. Mandell also wrote the award-winning book, Pinehurst ~ Home of American Golf - The Evolution of a Legend (International Network of Golf Book of the Year – 2007).