It sounds like an overheated ad campaign for one of those big
summer movies: A seismic shift in the landscape! The premature
end of an epoch! Men rising from the dead to eat their young!
But this is no movie; it's golf's blockbuster summer, which
blasts off next week with the U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club in
San Francisco. The dizzying nine-week stretch that contains the
final three major championships goes a long way toward defining
any season, but the plotlines this time around are particularly
Last year was the coronation of the new Brat Pack, led by the
under-30 stars who swept the first three majors--Tiger Woods,
Ernie Els and Justin Leonard. These three, plus a handful of
their amigos, looked as if they were going to overrun the sport,
but so far this season top billing has been co-opted by a group
of salty veterans. The feel-good story of the year belongs to
Tom Watson, the 48-year-old fossil who won the Colonial three
weeks ago, while the only major to date has gone to Mark
O'Meara, who mastered Augusta at age 41. Then there's creaky
Fred Couples, who despite the fact that he's pushing 40 has won
twice in '98 and sits atop the money list.
"The ball doesn't know how old you are," O'Meara said last week
from the Kemper Open in Bethesda, Md., where he finished third,
four strokes behind winner Stuart Appleby. "Some of the guys out
here think I'm washed up. I like that. It's nice to show the
young guys that some of us old-timers can still play the game."
Before anyone reports O'Meara and his contemporaries to the
bureau of child welfare, it should be noted that
twentysomethings Leonard, Woods and David Duval are all among
the top 10 on the money list, and Els and Phil Mickelson, who
celebrates his 28th birthday two days before the start of the
Open, have won tournaments as well. But everybody knows the only
things that really matter are the majors, and Olympic is
ill-suited to the recklessness of youth. Olympic is a tight
little bandbox boasting what some are already calling the
gnarliest rough in Open history. That figures to take the
driver, and any chance of winning, away from Duval, Mickelson
and Woods, the young bucks who have bashed their way to the
game's forefront. As Jack Nicklaus, 58, showed us with his near
miss at the Masters, the majors are a different ball game than
the first-one-to-20-under-wins birdiefests on the PGA Tour.
"What the U.S. Open comes down to is this: How do you deal with
the bad crap that happens to you, not how low can you go," says
Tom Lehman, 39, who has led the last three Opens heading into
the final round. "It's a test of resiliency, a test of patience,
and that's something that's learned only over time."
Not surprisingly, some of the kids frown on this kind of talk.
"I don't think experience is the thing that matters," says
Leonard, who finished 29th at the Kemper. "Look what happened
last year [in the majors]."
The stage is set for a showdown between the forces that author
P.J. O'Rourke has identified his latest book as "age and guile"
and "youth, innocence and a bad haircut." (Presumably that last
bit refers to John Daly.) Were experience the only thing that
matters, Watson would rate as the prohibitive favorite. At the
last Open at Olympic, in 1987, he finished second by a shot,
giving away the tournament to Scott Simpson in an act so
charitable it should have been tax deductible. Watson knows the
quirks of Olympic like few others, having studied up while an
undergrad at nearby Stanford. (Ditto for Woods, though few of
the other youngsters can claim any sort of familiarity with
Olympic, as it hasn't hosted a Tour event since the '94 Tour
Championship.) Watson's ability to think his way around a USGA
layout has been demonstrated with 11 top 10 finishes in the
Open, including his classic victory just down the coast from San
Francisco at Pebble Beach in 1982.
However, Couples and O'Meara offer eloquent rebuttals to the
notion that playing a lot of U.S. Open golf confers any sort of
advantage. Both men have lost their way in the long grass. Since
1984 Couples has failed to make it to the starting line at two
Opens, missed the cut twice and cracked the top 10 only once.
With his fragile back Couples is loath to try to fight his way
out of the brutal rough. Besides, short putting has always been
a chink in his armor, a failing exacerbated on the always
slippery Open greens. Of course, O'Meara's record makes
Couples's look sterling. The Open has exposed O'Meara's driving,
which is the untoward combination of short and crooked. (For the
'97 season he was 153rd in distance and 168th in accuracy.) From
1989 to '94 O'Meara missed six straight cuts in the Open and in
'95 he didn't even make it through sectional qualifying. He
celebrated by taking his family on a vacation to the Bahamas.
"Which was probably a good thing," O'Meara says. "My
expectations had gotten so low for that tournament." He has
finished a respectable 16th and then 36th in the last two years,
and his breakthrough at the Masters has him looking ahead to
Olympic and a run at the Grand Slam.
"Yeah, right," O'Meara says with a smirk. "I would never say
something is impossible, but that's right next to impossible."
But, he adds, "my expectations for the Open are a lot higher
after Augusta. I learned some things there about how to play in
the majors, about hanging in and keeping myself in check."
Yes, there's that experience thing again, which leads to another
rejoinder from Leonard: "You don't have to be old to be
experienced." Els is proof of that. In just five appearances the
28-year-old has established himself as one of the great Open
players in the game's history, having won twice and finished
worse than seventh only once. Leonard's learning curve isn't as
steep, but he's headed in the right direction after three Opens,
going from 68th as an amateur in 1993 to 50th in '96 and 36th
With his dependable (if short) driving, savvy course management
and brilliant short game, the Open is the major that would
appear to best suit Leonard, his heroics at Royal Troon last
year notwithstanding. "I don't really have an opinion on that,"
he demurs. "I certainly look forward to the [U.S.] Open. I
learned early on that golf is a game of patience, of minimizing
mistakes and of taking advantage of opportunities."
Sounds like Leonard is describing his own game. "It's the way I
try to play," he says. "It doesn't always work out."
Colin Montgomerie has been working out, and the svelte Scot will
arrive at the Open as a favorite to win, as always, thanks to
his driving, which is as straight as six o'clock, and his iron
play, which ranks among the world's finest. Montgomerie is only
34, though he qualifies as an old-timer if for no other reason
than he seems to have been around forever. This is partly
because he has been chasing history so doggedly. Since 1927 only
one European has won America's national championship--Tony
Jacklin, at Hazeltine 28 years ago.
"In Europe we never, never play under U.S. Open conditions, or
anything even close," says Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, who
finished 61st at the Kemper. "So when you come to the U.S. Open,
there's a lot of intimidation on every tee shot. It's almost as
if there's water left and water right." Every year the Tour
conducts tournaments on three Open courses--Colonial, Riviera
and Pebble Beach--and a number of others that fit the archetype,
including Spyglass Hill, Harbour Town, Westchester and Cog Hill.
But overcoming the fear of anorexic fairways is only part of the
battle for the Europeans. "The U.S. Open doesn't let you
scramble," says Parnevik, citing a skill at which European tour
players are thought to be superior to their U.S. counterparts.
"There's no finesse around the greens. Everything is trying to
blast the ball out of the long rough. That takes a lot of the
creativity out of the short game."
Then there's this: "We feel we're jinxed," Parnevik says. This
bad mojo is what haunts Montgomerie. After all, the flip side to
the value of experience is that in golf, most experiences are
Montgomerie's opposite number in Europe is Lee Westwood, the
insouciant 25-year-old from England who has been tearing up the
tour over there this season. Last year Westwood finished an
encouraging 19th in his first U.S. Open, and after making the
cut in all four majors (only 16 players did it in '97), he has
pronounced the Open as the one that best suits his game, not
surprising because he's a crack driver and fearless on the
greens. What does Westwood like about the Open? "The challenge,"
he says. "It's interesting to play the narrow fairways, the
rough, the hard, fast greens." To that list he could add the
swirling winds at Olympic and the tempestuous weather of south
Sounds like Armageddon, if not Armageddon. That upcoming release
features two movie stars from different generations trying to
save the world: stalwart Bruce Willis and fresh-faced Ben
Affleck. At this year's U.S. Open the old guard led by
Montgomerie and Watson will have to contend with shooting stars
like Els, Leonard and Westwood.
Trying to predict a golf tournament's winner is folly, but it
says here that Bruce's contemporaries aren't ready to relinquish
the spotlight yet and that they've found the right course on
which to make their stand.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER THE CONTENDERS The winner of next week's U.S. Open is likely to be one of these five players (from opposite page, left): Up-and-comers Leonard, Els and Westwood, or old favorites Montgomerie and Watson. [Justin Leonard golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN [See caption above--Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Tom Watson]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND IT WAS A BREEZE While the other Kemper leaders skied in Sunday's winds, Appleby hung on for a one-shot win over Scott Hoch. [Stuart Appleby golfing]
Montgomerie is a favorite to win, thanks to his driving, which
is as straight as six o'clock.
"It's interesting to play the narrow fairways, the rough, the
hard, fast greens," says Westwood.