Toughness the Key for Contenders at a Historically Difficult U.S. Open

Shinnecock has tested the psyches of the world's best players all week. Tiger, Rory and Jordan went home Friday. The players near the top of the leaderboard have accepted the difficulties and weathered the storm.
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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The U.S. Open traditionally ends on Father’s Day, and it always seems designed to reinforce lessons from Dad. Don’t give up. Don’t whine. Be patient and things will work out. Stay true to yourself. And as we head into what will, mercifully, be the final round at Shinnecock Hills, maybe we should keep all that in mind. Some days are fun, and some days you work your butt off and tell yourself it is fun. This week has been full of the latter.

All week, the best players in the world looked like they’d have preferred to spend the day plunging toilets. But everybody who still has a chance has something in common: toughness.

Just check out thisleaderboard. Tony Finau severely injured his ankle at the Masters’ par-3 tournament, appeared to pop it back in place, and still finished in the top 10. He is tied for the lead. Dustin Johnson is the kind of freak athlete that you take first in any pickup game before you even know what sport you’re playing. He is also tied for the lead. Brooks Koepka is built like a safety and walks like he knows it. He is the defending champ and tied for the lead. Daniel Berger is one of the tour's most confident young players despite his peers—Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth to name a few—garnering far more adoration. 

“There’s nobody more confident,” Koepka said Saturday. He was talking about himself. “I won this thing last year. I feel really good. My game is in a good spot. I feel like you’ve gotta take it from me, to be honest with you.”

Keep looking. The most popular names in golf are not on the leaderboard. Spieth went home Friday night. So did Rory McIlroy. So did Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson is here, but he shouldn’t be after deliberately breaking a rule: putting his ball while it was still moving to keep it from rolling off a green.

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But the guys who are up there earned those spots the hard way. Patrick Reed is three strokes back; say what you want about the man, but he is fearless on the course. And one stroke off the lead is a man who has played the major championships far too well to have only won one of them: Justin Rose.

Rose nearly won the 1998 British Open as a 19-year-old amateur (he finished two shots back of champion Mark O’Meara). He lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia at the Masters last year, and has played Augusta recently as well as anybody. He caught and passed Phil Mickelson to win the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

“It’s kind of exactly where I was at Merion, just a couple back,” Rose said of the current leaderboard, though a Dustin Johnson three-putt on 18 while he was saying that cut his deficit to one. “That’s all you need to do for three days is give yourself a shot. Today was hard.”

Hard doesn’t describe it. This was like doing advanced math homework in the back of a pickup truck speeding on a dirt road while standing on one foot. Just about everybody complained about how hard the course was. They had a point. The greens were rock hard. Pins were too close to severe slopes. But the players near the top of the leaderboard complained the least. And this makes you wonder: Did they complain the least because their scores were the best? Or did they produce the best scores because they complained the least?

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Both, as it turns out. Johnson shot 77 Saturday but didn’t seem that fazed by it. As Koepka said, “If some guys get down on themselves, you can eliminate them right away.”

Said Rose: “It’s no surprise that we’re ending up where we’re ending up. It’s a difficult golf course, and the setup makes it very borderline if not over the edge.”

So much of the U.S. Open is remembering, at all times, that it’s the U.S. Open. You can’t get cute or aggressive or flake out and think you can play shots that work at the PGA Tour stop in Scottsdale. You have to be conservative, patient and take what the course gives you, even when it belches in your face.

Rose realized that before he even teed off Saturday. He knew Johnson, the world No. 1, started the day at four under par, but Rose also knew that the U.S. Open doesn’t care about the Official World Golf Ranking. Rose quickly figured that ending the day at three over would be a good number. That just happens to be where the leaders are.

“We’re still at the races,” Rose said. "We’ll be back trying tomorrow.”

The Masters is about fireworks. The U.S. Open is about putting out fires. It’s supposed to be hard. And when it seems unfair, remember another lesson: Life is not fair. The trophy will go to a man who accepts that.