OAKMONT, Pa. -- In a major championship, rooting for birdies and eagles generally makes the most sense. We want to see golfers go low when the stakes are high. We want to see the best players in the world conquer an unconquerable game.
The recreational hacker inside of most of us can't fathom what these master craftsmen do with the tools of their trade. Frankly, though I've been courtside for some of Michael Jordan's most memorable air shows, I was still more blown away by what Tiger Woods could do with his golf ball.
At the Masters, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship, there's nothing like the echo of a Sunday crowd reacting to an approach shot stopping inches from the cup. But at the U.S. Open, thunderous ovations aren't quite as popular. It's a better tournament when the groan replaces the roar as its defining sound.
That's why I want Oakmont -- maybe the most penal golf course in America -- to bring this field to its quivering knees. As much as I want to see a winner at the other three majors, I want to see a survivor at the U.S. Open, panting and begging for a cup of water.
The person who wins this national championship should be considered the toughest man (or boy) in golf. Jordan Spieth was 21 last year when he overcame a double-bogey on the 71st hole and the bizarro moonscape of Chambers Bay, showing a grittiness he didn't necessarily need during his runaway at the Masters two months prior. Based on the fact Spieth had proven he could win ugly, USGA executive director Mike Davis said the new champ was "good enough to win the Grand Slam." (Davis wasn't off by much.)
Spieth believes a score of even par will win at Oakmont, or a score "significantly over par" if the wind picks up. Let's do a wind dance then. Let's root for 30 mph gusts and a whole lot of whining and wailing in the locker room and on the range.
Once a year, it's good to see the pros feel what the rest of us often feel on a golf course -- despair, rage and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It's also good to see them confront a physical challenge that approximates what their contemporaries regularly face in contact sports.
Golfers don't get hit by 300-pound linemen, or sawed in half by strong safeties while laying out for a pass. They don't have to defend LeBron James in the post, or trade elbows (and groin shots) with Draymond Green in the paint.
But at least the U.S. Open drags them kicking and screaming into golf's version of the Octagon. Players are already voicing concerns that Oakmont, 2016, could bring out the worst in them, and make Angel Cabrera's prevailing trudge here in 2007 (he finished at 5-over 285) feel like a pleasant springtime stroll.
"Some players have talked themselves out of it before the week even starts," said Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champ. "You see the golf course for the first time and you can go into a panic state and lose your focus. So you've got to be mentally prepared for what's going to come up and try to stay calm and patient. It's' the hardest thing on a U.S. Open course to do."
Goosen seemed like a good guy to chat with Tuesday, as he won at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 on a final-round course many described as embarrassingly unfair. The sun and wind conspired to bake the greens, and left the pros feeling like they were putting on the Long Island Expressway.
Twenty-eight players shot 80 or higher (Robert Allenby was the only player to manage even par), Woods called the greens "out of control," and the pummeled masses ripped the USGA for conduct unbecoming. "They've done it again," Jerry Kelly said that day. "I think they've topped themselves this year. It was a little comical. When are they going to grow a head? I have no idea. Get off your high horse and be good to the game."
But Goosen, who finished with a total of 4 under, shot a perfectly reasonable 1-over 71, as did the runner-up, Phil Mickelson. If those two contenders figured it out, who said a third, Ernie Els, had to go and shoot 80?
Was Shinnecock really unfair, or were some players more resourceful and more accepting of their environment than others?
"I don't know," Goosen said after he was done with his Oakmont practice round. "I won at 4 under par, which was lower than the two other times it was played there (Raymond Floyd was 1 under in 1986, and Corey Pavin was even par in 1995). I was just grinding out every shot, just trying to make pars and not even thinking about birdies.
"This week they're going to say the same thing -- is it going to be fair? -- and maybe that 6, 7 or 8 over par could win this tournament. The greens seem a little more severe than they were [in 2007], and if you don't drive it well, you've got no chance. The key is to block out what goes on beyond the ropes, thousands of people, the commentators, the cameras. You have to remember it's just you and that little ball out there."
I was in the crowd when Goosen beat Mickelson at Shinnecock, and I don't remember the fans being terribly upset over the playing conditions and the double- and triple-bogeys they caused. In fact, I recall nonstop expressions of delight over the sight of the world's best players making like 20-handicappers at their local muni.
Golf is meant to be hard -- really, really hard. I wouldn't want to see punishment and pain at every major, but once a year the sport should run its athletes through a big event that simulates a Bear Bryant training camp.
The U.S. Open isn't for the faint of heart, or mind. Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy might be the favorites, but I'll be pulling for the beast that is Oakmont and the promise that only the toughest man in the field will find his way home.