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Sunday, June 18, 2006
Updated: June 20, 4:39 PM ET
USGA setup spawns another train wreck

By Matthew Rudy
GolfDigest.com

Well, that was fun. Did the USGA get what it wanted? A train wreck on the back nine, where the guy who managed to save par from a sand-filled divot, Geoff Ogilvy, won it sitting in the scoring trailer when two other players exploded into pieces on the 18th hole? (That he even had to do that because of a stupid USGA rule about ground under repair is another story altogether ...) Spare me the rhetoric about the U.S. Open testing your entire game. Phil Mickelson hit two fairways on Sunday. If he hadn't insisted on hitting driver on the last three holes, he would have won this tournament by at least three shots. If Colin Montgomerie could have hit the middle of the green from 170 yards, he would have finally won his well-deserved first major.

Instead, we have Ogilvy. Hey, give him credit. He scratched and clawed, parring the last four holes, and he should be proud of the 5-over score he recorded for the week.

But something is fundamentally wrong here. Players aren't encouraged to make decisions at a U.S. Open venue. They're encouraged to thread it down 25-yard-wide fairways, hit it to the middle of the green and hope that one of those 20-footers snakes in for birdie every once in awhile. Maybe you'll catch a lie in the rough. Maybe your ball will bury in the bunker. Maybe you'll make one more double than the guy in your pairing and you'll blow it all.

All it takes is a look at the best players in the world right now, and you can see that this requirement isn't identifying the best players in the world. It's identifying the most risk-averse, straight-line, boring-yet-talented players in the world. Tiger Woods? He's won two Opens, but his record in this major is the worst of the four. He's only the dominant player of the last 10 years.

Mickelson? He won two majors in a row coming in and was arguably the best player in the world. He still hasn't won a U.S. Open. And after the collection of clown-college shots he hit on 18 -- it's hard to pick the worst, the slice with driver off the tee or the attempt to thread it through the trees when bogey won the tournament -- he might be scarred for life. Instead, you've got Andy North, Corey Pavin, Steve Jones, Retief Goosen (twice!), Jim Furyk and Michael Campbell.

It's a cheap shot, but check out the leaderboard this week. Aside from Mickelson, you had a collection of almosts, sort-ofs, never-weres and probably-shouldn'ts. Furyk gets credit as a quintessential U.S. Open player. Great. But he will never, ever, ever challenge the best players in the world for the No. 1 ranking. He's like a clay court specialist in tennis trying to make the transition to Wimbledon. If he were shorter and a UCLA grad, you could call him the second coming of the Gritty Little Bruin.

Monty? Great story. He's a jerk, but it was genuinely tragic to watch him double 18 to lose out on yet another chance to win that first major. But what does that say about this tournament that he was weeping in the locker room, at least five years past his prime, and the rest of the top-10 was nowhere to be found?

Ogilvy has a lot of talent and promise, but like Campbell last year, he has never been considered at the top rank of professional golf. And Kenneth Ferrie? He should get a medal for having to listen to pro-Mickelson hecklers all day Sunday, but he didn't belong in the final group of a major championship.

Even though Augusta National is trying very, very hard to screw it up with the new turfgrass steroid program it has undertaken, it has always known the formula that seems to identify the best players in the world. For every Mike Weir victory, there's been three dominant performances by Tiger and an inspired comeback from Phil thrown in. You've even got nostalgia in the form of Jack Nicklaus coming back from the dead. The PGA gets picked on as the weakest of the four majors, but even they have a better handle on the mixture of challenge and fairness that makes for the best golf tournaments. Any complaints about Vijay winning at Whistling Straits? Hey, he was the best player in the world that year. What about Mickelson at Baltusrol?

How does the average fan feel about watching what happened on Sunday afternoon? Is it entertaining to watch good players bleed and get worked over by overzealous course superintendants? Is it fun to cheer for pars converted? It isn't for me. As far as I'm concerned, the World Putt Putt Championships are as relevant to the process of identifying the best golfer in the world as the U.S. Open has become. Give me the World Golf Championships. And hurry.

Matthew Rudy is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine