John McGrath

John McGrath: Real ‘tragedy’ is US Open’s return to safe Oakmont rather a unique course like Chambers Bay

The U.S. Open Golf Championship returns to Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, this week.
The U.S. Open Golf Championship returns to Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, this week. The Associated Press

It’s been one year since the U.S. Open came to Chambers Bay. For those who failed to survive the cut — and even many of those who did — their prevailing memory isn’t the final round that offered a dozen story-line turns, seemingly all at once, culminating with an 18th-hole Sunday showdown between two of the sport’s best players.

Their prevailing memory isn’t the weather — four days of ideal conditions rarely enjoyed at major tournaments — nor the symbolic passing of the torch from the broken and beaten Tiger Woods to fresh prince Jordan Spieth.

Their prevailing memory is what former champion Gary Player called “a tragedy” during a television interview better described as a rant.

“This has been the most unpleasant golf tournament I have seen in my life,” Player told the Golf Network on the morning before the third round. “There have never been so many people that missed the cut are happy to go home.

“It’s actually a tragedy.”

Player was referring to the radical design of the course in general, and the scorched greens in particular. A two-week drought before the tournament, combined with the USGA’s laudible quest to conserve water, produced bumpy putting surfaces that were likened to broccoli and cauliflower.

The U.S. Open returns this week to the Pittsburgh area’s Oakmont Country Club, a staple of the tournament’s revolving cycle. Elite golfers are capable of grousing about the sunrises at Campobello and the swallows at San Juan Capistrano, and they can be especially edgy about course conditions on the eve of an Open.

But Oakmont is getting a lot of love right now, mostly because Oakmont is different from Chambers Bay in the way fine wine is different from vinegar.

“We’re back to a nice, traditional U.S. Open,” Rory McIlroy said the other day. “Not like we’re playing on the moon this year.”

Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion who has replaced Greg Norman as the primary analyst for FOX Sports’ coverage of the Open, expanded on McIlroy’s thoughts during a recent conference call with reporters.

“We’re at a different venue this year,” Azinger said. “We are at an old friend, an established U.S. Open, traditional golf course. A big part of the story line is that people will know what they are looking at. They have seen it before many times, and they can’t wait to see how the rest of the world will play it.

“That’s versus last year, which was a great, great unknown. For me as an announcer — and I wasn’t part of it — there was no familiarity at Chambers Bay. So everything is going to be better because we are at a grand, old place to play golf.”

Everything is going to be better? A bold prediction.

Another prediction — mine — is that everything won’t be better at Oakmont, for the simple reason everything can’t be better than the terrific theater we witnessed last summer at Chambers Bay.

The top six finishers gave the leaderboard the kind of international balance that defines the “major” in a major tournament: Spieth and Dustin Johnson from the U.S., Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace from South Africa, Adam Scott and Cameron Smith from Australia.

The scores on that leaderboard precisely fulfilled the USGA’s mission statement for any U.S. Open: Provide a difficult test for the world’s best golfers without humiliating them. It’s a fine line. While fans don’t want to watch these guys reduced into weekend duffers hitting every approach out of a bunker or behind a tree, the U.S. Open is not to be confused with the Uncle Joe’s Petticoat Junction Classic at the Hooterville Golf Club, where 22-under might qualify for a fourth-place tie.

Spieth won at five-under par. Bingo. The Masters champion looked like a lock to hoist his second major-tournament trophy of the season after 16 holes on Sunday, and then the plot got very thick: A double-bogey for Spieth on No. 17, followed, minutes later by Johnson’s birdie.

Although Spieth birdied the par-5 finishing hole, Johnson answered by reaching the green on two, setting up a 12-foot eagle putt for the victory. The downhill putt went past the cup by three feet, and with an 18-hole Monday playoff round at stake, he couldn’t drop the birdie putt, either.

The missed putts had nothing to do with the burned-out green. They had everything to do with the pressure-cooker tension of a suspenseful U.S. Open that hardly was the “tragedy” Gary Player called it.

Moving 30,000 fans a day in and out of Chambers Bay loomed as a challenge that proved to be seamless. Fans couldn’t follow their favorite players from hole to hole, but they understood the unconventional logistics involved with creating golf courses out of gravel pits and rolled with it. They rolled to merchandise center, where sales went through the roof of the temporary tent, helping pump $134 million into the local economy.

And yet the question persists: Will Chambers Bay get another chance to step up to the plate in the U.S. Open rotation?

“When you look back on it, of course Chambers Bay should get another U.S. Open,” Oosthuizen told Golf Magazine’s Alan Shipnuck. “You had the best golfers in the world putting on quite a show, and that’s a credit to the golf course.”

As the FOX television audience hears about how beloved and revered dear old Oakmont is this week, I suspect Paul Azinger will point out the distinction between a glorious golf paradise on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and that weird Chambers Bay experiment on the outskirts of Tacoma.

Hey, you’ve got to talk about something when lightning strikes, and there’s a two-hour rain delay.