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U.S. Open: Tournament that belongs to everyone

Bubba Watson tees off on the fourth hole

Bubba Watson tees off on the fourth hole during the final round of the 78th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2014 in Augusta, Ga. Credit: Getty Images / Emmanuel Dunand

PINEHURST, N.C. - One of the many outstanding things about the U.S. Open is that it is held all over the country. On Thursday, it will begin here at Pinehurst No. 2, last year it was at Merion outside Philadelphia, next year it will be at Chambers Bay in the Pacific Northwest. And every day it is held on some municipal course or driving range.

Golfers still do stand over a putt or an approach shot and say, "This is for the U.S. Open!''

The Open still invites everybody to dream that way, even though, to be honest, more people these days probably say, "This is for the Masters!''

Let's face it, the Masters has become the pre-eminent American golf tournament. It is the one that gets the largest television ratings, the one that looks prettiest in high definition, the one that tells much of the country that the winter is over and golf season is here.

And yet, there is only one national championship, and it is the big, brash, unwieldy one that bears the nation's initials. As Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, said Tuesday: "The U.S. Open is the U.S. Open. It's a big deal for me and all of us golfers.''

It is the tournament that offers people a chance to keep dreaming, as long as their handicap index is 1.4 or better and they are willing to pay the $150 entry fee. Sign up for the local qualifying rounds and give it a shot.

No one gives you a green jacket if you win. What you get instead is a new life. Ken Venturi once said his 1964 U.S. Open championship was the single greatest factor in his being hired as an analyst on CBS for the Masters and the network's other telecasts for years. Hubert Green once said that after he won the Open in 1977, "All of a sudden, I'm an expert on everything. Interviewers want your opinion on golf, foreign policy and the price of peanuts.''

The U.S. Open was the first major to come to the people's course, Bethpage Black (public service reminder: If you sleep in your car outside the gates on Magnolia Lane, trying to get a morning tee time, there's a good chance someone will tap on your window and let you know they're booked).

Thanks to the Open, we get to see lovely old venues such as Shinnecock Hills -- site of the 1986 Open, the greatest golf tournament these eyes ever have seen -- and Merion and Pinehurst.

This is where it gets dicey. Pinehurst management, with the blessing of the USGA, went "way out on a limb,'' course architect Bill Coore said here Tuesday, by going retro: Coore and partner Ben Crenshaw came in, tore out acres of thick rough and restored the course's original look, featuring sandy waste areas and native vegetation. "We call it weeds where I grew up,'' Watson said.

On one hand, it is fantastic that they're playing the Open on a course that can remind people of Tanglewood in Milton, Florida. On the other hand, a U.S. Open without rough seems kind of like a Stanley Cup Final game without ice. And what if TV viewers would rather not look at all those bare spots?

But hey, let's keep an Open mind. Maybe Phil Mickelson's passionate pursuit of the only major to have eluded him will make this week the highlight of the 2014 golf season. Maybe the $1.1 billion that Fox committed for rights to televise the Open beginning next year will bear fruit (just don't bet $1.1 billion that the new network's Open ratings will surpass the Masters, as former U.S. Golf Association president Glen Nager predicted; the Open hasn't won that contest since 1973).

In any case, the words "U.S. Open'' still speak volumes. It is the one tournament that belongs to the 156 golfers who are here, and to everybody else.

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