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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

U.S. Open pressure identifies best players at benign Pebble Beach

 PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.

There still is magic in the phrase “U.S. Open” after all. The mere magnitude of the event caused throats to tighten, pulses to race and swings to get loopy on Sunday afternoon. The course was soft, conditions tepid, wind absent. And still the best golfers played some very spotty golf.

Credit it to the prestige of a tournament that had been under siege that Gary Woodland, Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka all kept finding the deep rough on the final lap after cruising through 3 1⁄2 rounds.

Here’s to all the history leading up to this 119th U.S. Open, to all the great golfers who earned places on the championship trophy, to the honor of being a cherished national championship. All of it resulted in stifling pressure on the last nine.

Despite the caterwauling, the anonymous carping in Golf Digest and the empty after-the-fact talk of a proposed boycott, the U.S. Open still is well worth winning and hard to win.

Par took a beating, but the Open’s reputation took a step forward.

For as long as anyone can remember, the sobering advice to golfers at a U.S. Open was “Take your medicine.” In other words, you’re going to be in spots you cannot overcome, so take your medicine, accept bogey and move on.

This time it was the U.S. Golf Association that had to take its medicine.

With no wind to offer a stiff challenge and with its own recent spotty history keeping it from getting too aggressive, the USGA had to just sit there and watch players make mincemeat of par. The group that takes pride in calling its big tournament “the toughest test in golf” had to face the reality that it wasn’t even the toughest test in the past 30 days. It wasn’t as challenging as Bethpage was for the PGA Championship.

So it goes. It was an exciting event with a worthy champion. Kudos to the USGA for not getting carried away and overcompensating for the soft ground and mild conditions. No wacky pin positions, no hash-brown greens.

The latter quality was especially welcome. In an attempt to make Chambers Bay devilishly firm and fast, the USGA made the course look like the surface of the moon. Similarly, it drained the beauty out of Shinnecock Hills (a particular sin in the eyes of this Eastern Long Islander). Pebble Beach Golf Links was allowed to remain nice and green, which was smart. The best thing this tournament had going for it was the scenery.

One thing that was a little troublesome was the lack of whining. That left the impression that Pebble Beach Golf Links was too much of a pushover. I was concerned early Thursday when I heard Scott Piercy use the dreaded F-word: “fair.” Uh-oh. When PGA Tour players say “fair,” it means “easy.”

More ominous was the lavish praise from the USGA’s loudest critic, Phil (Mr. Hit-a-Moving-Ball-to-Teach-Them-a-Lesson) Mickelson. On Saturday, he said: “I’ve got to hand it to the USGA for doing a great setup. It’s the best I’ve ever seen. And it’s identifying the best players. It’s making the players the story.”

Actually, the U.S. Open’s appeal over the years has not been in making the players the story but in making the players sweat.

Then there was the tweet from Zach Johnson, the one who so dramatically intoned at Shinnecock last year, “They’ve lost the course” (despite the fact that Brooks Koepka was doing just fine on it). On Sunday, Johnson issued this glowing dispatch: “Gotta call it like I see it . . . well done@USGA. Pebble was/is just perfect. Minimal winds, perfect greens, phenomenal setting and fans. Fantastic US Open.”

If the U.S. Open (like a newspaper columnist) isn’t making someone a little uncomfortable, it isn’t doing its job.

Not to worry. There was real heat on the leaders at the end because the national championship still means so much.

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