Major Challenges

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No one seems to be having much fun in the majors except the guys who leave with the trophy.

The cheers were muted at Augusta National, where frigid temperatures and bone-dry conditions made it the highest-scoring Masters in more than 50 years. Birdies were rare until Sunday, and even a 69 by Zach Johnson wasn’t enough to allow him to break par over 72 holes. Jack Burke Jr. in 1956 was the last player to win a green jacket with black numbers next to his name.

Oakmont was even worse.

Already regarded as the toughest championship course in America, it became a sheer brute with gnarly rough framing narrow fairways that led to slick, scary greens. Tiger Woods was the runner-up, despite making one birdie over the final 32 holes. Phil Mickelson blamed his wrist injury on chipping out of the rough during a marathon practice round. Angel Cabrera won at 5 over par.

Next up is Carnoustie, which is no cupcake.

Forgotten amid the debacle of Jean Van de Velde’s collapse in 1999 was the winning score of 290, the highest for a British Open since 1947.

“It’s not a good year for the stroke average,” Nick Faldo said.

Indeed, this is shaping up as the toughest year in the majors since the Masters was created in 1934.

Odds are Carnoustie won’t be as nasty as it was eight years ago, when an overzealous superintendent shrunk the fairways and grew the grass to absurd heights, and the number of complaints was almost higher than the winning score.

One of the more famous lines was delivered by David Duval.

“If the average player had to play out there, he’d probably quit the game,” Duval said. “A lot of pros, too.”

Not many would argue that majors are supposed to be the hardest. They should test every aspect of the game. They should identify who played the best golf.

But with two champions who couldn’t break par, it raises the question of whether the majors are getting out of hand.

Jim Hyler, head of the championship committee at the USGA, preached all week at Oakmont that the mission was to create a “rigorous test” at the U.S. Open, but he offered a peculiar defense when 35 players failed to break 80 in the second round, and someone suggested the USGA again had gone over the top.

“The players’ scores mean nothing to us,” he said. “Absolutely nothing.”

But if that’s the case, how does he know the test has been rigorous?

“We’re not performing in front of judges,” Justin Leonard said. “They don’t rate every shot. How can you not look at scores?”

The Royal & Ancient paid more attention to the players’ reactions than their scores, and chief executive Peter Dawson conceded that Carnoustie was too extreme in 1999. Asked if the R&A regretted how the course was set up, he replied, “I think so.”

“To be honest, we regard player reaction as very important,” Dawson said. “The reaction there was clearly more negative than we would liked to have seen.”

What to expect this time?

“We are not seeking carnage,” Dawson said. “We’re seeking an arena where the players can display their skills to the best effect.”

But getting a major championship course just right involves a little science, a little art, a lot of luck.

No one pushes the envelope quite like the USGA, and no other major has paid so dearly for doing so. One only has to look at the seventh green at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when the best way to make par was to hit into the front bunker.

What separates the British Open – usually – is that it allows weather to largely determine the degree of difficulty. The wind raged at St. Andrews in 1995, and John Daly won 6-under 282. It was calm in 2000, which helped Woods to a 19-under 269.

“You can only do what you think is right, but you never can be sure until the week is over,” Dawson said. “It’s very difficult to predict what players will do to a golf course. I’ve been surprised more than once.”

One of the biggest complaints at the Masters in recent years has been the lack of fireworks on the famous back nine, where Jack Nicklaus made his stunning charge in 1986, and where Mickelson and Ernie Els traded birdies during a dynamic duel in 2004.

The U.S. Open is often about survival, and some argue there is room for that at least once a year. Based on the first two majors this year, it’s starting to look like a trend.

“If you’re missing fairways and laying up and a wedge in, it can get demoralizing,” Faldo said. “It cuts out your flair, and the ability to pull something off. It’s nice to be tested. If you get a difficult lie and it takes a career shot to get the ball on the green, I think you should give that player the opportunity. That might bring in more hazards.

“But it’s more dramatic than wedging out, wedging on and trying to hole a putt.”

Johnny Miller is among those who caution that any course that goes over the top runs the risk of getting a fluke winner, but there haven’t been many of those in the majors.

Royal St. George’s had its critics in the 2003 British Open for its lunar landscape that spit balls into ankle-deep rough. The winner that week was Ben Curtis, the first player to win a major in his first try since Francis Ouimet in 1913. But look at the leaderboard that year: Vijay Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Woods, Davis Love III, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia.

“As long as you’re not trying to hit a driver down a 15-yard fairway over and over and over on a 500-yard par 4, then I think it’s very fair,” Stuart Appleby said. “I don’t mind Mother Nature slapping us around, as along as they understand skill is the thing that wins tournaments, not luck.”

Dawson, however, offered a piece of advice that dates to Bobby Jones.

Golf isn’t meant to be fair.

“The key part of the game of golf is to have an element of unfairness and to be able to handle it when it happens to you,” Dawson said. “If everything was totally fair, it would be dull.”

AP-ES-07-12-07 1918EDT

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