This week as I set out for my 5th U.S. Open trip, I realized that the results from each of those previous tournaments still bear acute implications on this week’s story lines: 2009 at Bethpage, 2010 at Pebble Beach, 2011 at Congressional, and 2013 at Lower Merion,. The following is an unfettered recounting and ranking of the fan experience at each event…and how the main story plays into this week’s golf at Shinnecock:
5. 2010 Pebble beach
Takeaway: Plan ahead, leave early, and be prepared to wait a lot anyway. Or have a really great second option.
Attending a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach seems like a dream: looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a beer in hand, watching the world’s best contest our nation’s championship on one of the great golf courses in the world. Except that it took me and my friend longer than the length of a Tour final round to actually get out on the course. We were on a beach vacation for college graduation, with tickets for Saturday and Sunday at Pebble. Needless to say we were overboard with excitement. But getting to the tournament proved an absolute cluster f**. We went slowly through an endless procession of shuttle buses and then traffic jams on the small, windy route down the mountain to the ocean. Finding the action proved equally claustrophobic. The route to the expanse of ocean holes at Pebble bottlenecks around the second hole, and we fell stupidly into the immobile hoard, unable to see or move, as the arriving mass slowly pushed out on the course. We finally emerged from the thoroughfare– hot, exasperated, and desperate for beer and food. So naturally we surrendered to the first visible concession line immediately, adding another forty minutes or so to the unanticipated death-march. It was a four-hour trip from fifteen miles away. In the end, we spent as much time traveling and waiting as watching U.S. Open golf. Could we have done it better? Absolutely. We were fresh college graduates, flying high on a summer road trip and invariably lit. But it felt like such an unwanted, unavoidable hassle we decided to sell our Sunday tickets and watch from the beach house balcony instead.
Shinnecock storyline: Is Dustin Johnson really a different dude?
Current world No.1 Dustin Johnson led by three shots heading into the final round, but ejected on impact with a hozzle-hook triple bogey on the second hole and a double on the third en route to a Sunday 82 (+10) & T8 finish. It began the trend of calamitous major misses for Johnson, though astoundingly it may not even rank in the top three of his Sunday misfortunes (1. The Bunker That Wasn’t 2. The Chambers Bay Three-Putt 3. OB at the Open Championship). But how much have things changed heading into Shinnecock? D.J. broke through with a heroic U.S. Open title at Oakmont in 2016, and heads into this week coming off a dominant Sunday close at the St. Jude Classic. Yet with just the lone major and a lackluster 2017, there’s more than a lingering idea that Johnson still hasn’t tapped his show-stopping potential. He’s paradoxically just that good. He regained the world No.1 spot with this past weekend’s win in Memphis and can bury all of the remaining “yea buts” with a second U.S. Open title at Shinnecock.
4. 2013 Lower Merion
Takeaway: Don’t drink too much before the U.S. Open. It will only lead to a stumbling, sweaty, forgettable day.
When pre-gaming goes wrong. Three high school friends and I were enjoying a reunion in Philadelphia and fired up for a Saturday at Merion. We were just as eager to relive our indulgent school days, so we stopped at the liquor store that morning to get the day kicked off right. Shortly we were pounding Fireball and Sambuca shots under a bridge in north Philly, followed by hearty pours of vodka and sprite for the drive to the course. What ensued was a drunken, sweaty, shit-talking stumble around the grounds of Lower Merion Golf Club. We had little regard for course navigation and even less for reasonable decisions. We simply marched around. I remember a vivid moment early on while stalled at a fairway crossing, the morning’s overindulgence of alcohol pouring from us, when we all realized we had no idea where we were going and weren’t seeing much golf. Just as suddenly a new group favorite, quirky and brash third-round leader Billy Horschel, appeared and we erupted in a fist-pumping “Bil-lly-Ho” chant. It was that kind of day. We ultimately settled into watching some great golf at Merion’s unique fishbowl of a course. Yet by the end of the day the most uninitiated of our foursome had gotten lost in the merchandise tent, and none of us had cell phone service or any idea where he planned to reconvene. Operation “Find Mike” commenced, which entailed our most indebted friend venturing into the madness to find him while we “stayed at the rally point” and enjoyed a final, cold beer.
Shinnecock Storyline: Rose (And Mickelson) Seek to End Major Drought
Englishman Justin Rose claimed his first major while Phil Mickelson missed another opportunity to win the tournament he wants most after leading each of the first three days. Merion’s difficult, creative demands setup perfectly for Lefty’s breakthrough, but his putter again betrayed him on Sunday. Rose showed his now characteristic command down the stretch in becoming the first Englishman to win since Tony Jacklin in 1970. Both players enter this week with legacies on the line and expectations to contend. The 47-year old Mickelson still seeks the missing piece to complete his career Grand Slam, with six runner-up finishes and a couple more missed chances. Lefty actually hasn’t contended at the U.S. Open in awhile, but he’s a resurgent 6th in Fed Ex Cup points this season and notched his first victory in five years (the 2013 Open Championship) in March. Few will be surprised if Lefty finds the weekend mix, where the enduring narrative of his white-wale quest will surely take center stage. Meanwhile Rose, now ranked No.3 in the world, has steadily risen to the game’s class of elite in recent years. He’s widely regarded as one of the top closers and toughest winners in the game. Yet at age 37, he owns just the maiden Merion major five years ago. The group of one-time major winners is crowded and alternately anonymous. The jump to multiple major winner can put you in the Hall of Fame. Rose is enjoying a splendid season: No.3 in the Fed Ex Cup this season, with two wins and a third place finish at Bay Hill. But the fact of the matter is that since his Merion triumph, Rose simply hasn’t played well in majors outside of Augusta, where he’s finished T14, T2, T10, 2, & T12 the past four years. Otherwise he has just two Top 10’s in 14 major starts.
3. 2011 CONGRESSIONAL GC
Takeaway: Dull your inhibitions, act like you’re supposed to be there, and you can get just about anywhere at a professional golf tournament. Even the U.S. Open
Don’t ask me how what happened actually happened. My friend and I set out for round three of Rory McIlroy’s coronation at Congressional with little idea of the adventure that awaited us. We got onto the spacious grounds easy enough and found a shady spot on a hill near the 18th fairway where we could watch the players finish and walk below us on the path to the clubhouse. It was blistering hot, but we were naturally in close proximity to a beverage stand with surprisingly little activity. We made up for the slow business and crushed light beer all day while basking in our hillside spot. A delightful few hours, but merely the precursor to our coming escapade. Upon leaving the course, we somehow stumbled behind the scenes of Congressional’s U.S. Open operation. We wandered around the tennis complex of the expansive clubhouse, then through a media room we obviously had no access to (yes we helped ourselves to snacks.) We soon found ourselves in a scrum of reporters interviewing Robert Garrigus, before official-looking people finally questioned our credentials and made us leave the area. The unexpected, all-access fun only continued from there as we exited right into Tom Rinaldi’s shot for his ESPN sunset standup. We finally made our way to what looked like an exit: it was, for McIlroy himself, who had made a cloaked getaway from the clubhouse and was diving into his golden SUV chased by a sea of reporters. We were actually trying to leave to, and probably had a better chance of getting in with Rory at that point than finding our own way out. But we both jubilantly agreed it was the coolest, randomest sequence you could experience at a U.S. Open..
Shinnecock Storyline: The great Rory McIlroy…not that great anymore.
The 22-year old McIlroy brought Congressional and the field to its knees for his first major title: an eight shot victory with a U.S. Open-record total of 268 (-16). This, mere months after McIlroy blew a four shot final round lead at The Masters, buried in a 10th hole collapse that felt like an act of sadism just to watch. So Rory’s romp at the Open became instant legend, how the precocious kid answered critics with a Congressional crusade. The dominant win also portended a pattern for McIlroy’s major success that’s now the good side of a mercurial identity: when Rory is on, he’s the best in the world, more unbeatable than anybody else including Johnson. He won the 2012 PGA Championship and the in 2014 Open Championship in similarly dominant fashion. When he won his fourth career major that same year at the PGA Championship at Valhalla at the age of 24, McIlroy was the unquestioned “best player in the world” with no apparent second. The question then was “How many will he win?” Nowadays it’s simply, “When will Rory win again?” He hasn’t won a major in four years and didn’t win anywhere in 2017, He’s been downright dreadful at the U.S. Open since his demolition of Congressional: CUT, T41, T23, T9, CUT, CUT. McIlroy flashed his otherworldly form again this season with a scintillating Sunday comeback at Bay Hill for his first PGA Tour win in two seasons. But with the return to form has come a freshly disturbing trend: the one-time killer closer can’t get it done when it matters most. McIlroy is 1-5 this season with a chance to win on Sunday and 0-3 with the 54 hole lead. None was more prominent or costly than a final round 74 at the Masters, in the final group with eventual winner Patrick Reed, who blistered McIlory by six shots. Rory co-stars with Johnson as the game’s leading enigma, though for different reasons. No one will be surprised if McIlroy misses the cut or wins by six. What’s now just as intriguing is what will unfold if he is on the first page of a major leaderboard again heading into the weekend.
2. 2009 BETHPAGE BLACK
Takeway: Do what you can to find the perfect spot on the course. And circle your calendars for the 2024 Ryder Cup at Bethpage. It will be the livest golf event of all time.
Bethpage takes the cake for a U.S. Open fan experience. There are few crowds that match the energy of a New York City sports crowd, and our nation’s championship on Long Island’s proud, imminently public course proved a showcase stage. I was interning in the city for the summer and rounded up the usual crew for an epic event. Rule No.1 in traveling to New York sporting events: take the train, avoid the traffic, whenever possible. The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) trains ran in efficient surplus right to the course that week and we were whisked onto the grounds “straightaway,” as the Irish say. What a sight to behold: Bethpage is a beautiful, expansive monster of northeastern nature unveiled and unleashed over eighteen living holes. To see it teeming with tens of thousands of buzzing golf fans, and all the colors and operations of the U.S. Open, was a deep sensory experience. We walked the entire front nine, replenishing the senses with reloaded beers, then found a lucky spot in the grandstand behind the 15th tee. From that vantage point you could see the entire 15th hole and the 16th green, as well as he 17th hole simply by turning your head around. We did a lot of stumbling around tournaments during these college days: this time we stumbled right to the epicenter of the action. It proved the stirring scene of a literal Sunday battle charge for golf’s megastars: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Woods and fan favorite Mickelson were both hot in contention late in the final round, their galleries implausibly massive and positively ape-shit. At Bethpage, the 15th hole is down a large hill and on the opposite side of a road and from the 14th green. So when each marched confidently, defiantly down the hill towards us, stalking another conquest, with teeming hoards of hell-bent thousands pouring down around them, it really did feel like a great king and his unconquerable army was descending upon us. It was a unique moment in sports among few that I’ll never forget.
Shinnecock Storyline: Can Tiger, Phil Reverse Recent U.S. Open Results?
Lightly regarded Lucas Glover won his only major championship as both Mickelson and Woods bogeyed the 15th hole after their respective battle marches and came up short – Mickelson by two, Woods by four. They both fell short again at Pebble Beach the following year, finishing tied for fourth together. Woods hasn’t been a factor since, as his career collapsed from injury and infidelity beginning with the crash of 2009. He’s missed consecutive U.S. Opens, three of the last four, four of the last seven, with a T21, T32 and a MC in his three starts. Despite the “close-call” narrative, Mickelson has only contended once over the past seven years since those consecutive challenges – the near-miss at Merion in 2013. Otherwise it’s been a string of miserable showings: T54, T65, T28, T64 and CUT. He skipped last year’s event at Erin Hills to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, and perhaps refresh the course a final time on his white-whale quest. So there’s actually very little recent history to suggest Woods or Mickelson will contend this weekend. Yet it’s impossible to argue Woods’s game appears in the best shape since his Player of the Year season in 2013. At least he’s got a fighting chance after not even playing the event the past two years. Mickelson’s resurgent results this season speak for themselves: his six Top 10 finishes already are more than he registered each of the last two years, to go with his first win since 2013. You have to figure one of them can find his way into the mix at the punishing, seasoned Shinnecock course this week. One thing is sure: it will be THE story in sports if either can do so.
1. 2018 SHINNECOCK HILLS (?)
Consider this wishful thinking as I set out for my fifth U.S. Open trip this weekend, but I have a feeling it is going to be the best of them all. I’m especially hopeful because it’s a Father’s Day trip of sorts with my dad, who has only accompanied me to the Bethpage Open, and my brother-in-law who has never been at all. There are other reasons: the weather projects to be in the sunny low 70’s, a far cry from the Merion melting pot, and we’ve all (hopefully) matured since the indulgent college days, so we should stay relatively sober and on schedule. But mostly it’s because the storylines and superstars that made the Masters the “most anticipated in history” are still in play heading into the U.S. Open two months later. Tiger is back in the mix, megastars like D.J., Rory and Rose enter on great form, while Mickelson figures to have his best chance in years at the elusive career grand slam (as McIlroy projected to do at Augusta). Then there’s the old beauty of a beast itself in Shinnecock Hills. It is one of the five founding clubs of the USGA (1894), ranked No.4 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in America, classic, timeless and widely regarded as one of the greatest venues for a major championship. Hopefully the tournament will live up to the billing. Maybe we’ll get to the course on time and in good shape. But I’m fortunate to go and can’t wait to get there no matter what happens!
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Jon Wiener is a sports broadcaster, writer and film producer with Bash Brothers Media and ESPN 105.9 FM The Zone (Jackson, Miss.). He’s written for The New York Daily News, SLAM! Magazine, ABC News, Global Golf Post, The Jackson Free Press, Mississippi Sports Magazine, and more. He graduated from Syracuse University with an M.S. in Broadcast and Digital Journalism and Trinity University with a B.A. in English Literature. Broadcasting is fun, producing is expensive, writing is where the heart is.