‘Sport at its finest’: Bryson vs. Rory became an agonizing U.S. Open brawl

Bryson DeChambeau on the 18th green U.S. Open Sunday.

Bryson DeChambeau edged Rory McIlroy by a single shot at Pinehurst.

Getty Images

PINEHURST, N.C. — You’re tempted to say that Bryson and Rory were playing a game of cat-and-mouse, Sunday afternoon at Pinehurst, but you’ve seen these men, and you watched their Father’s Day golf. It was more like cat-and-cat. Big hitters on a big ballfield. It’s is not a coincidence that they both grew up on Tiger. 

And, while we’re at it, let’s drop the whole slimmed-down-Bryson thing. Please. He was playing on the wrong side of the gallery ropes often on Sunday, and thousands of fans could see, up close and personal, that he still has those clamdigger’s forearms, leftover from all those pandemic egg milkshakes. They were covered in a sheen of perspiration, in the heat and humidity of the North Carolina Sandhills. Bryson DeChambeau still looks like he could take out your whole posse with a single punch, if he were prone to violence. Fortunately, Bryson now lives by this credo: make par, not war.

As for Rory, he can match Tiger Woods in the weight room, match him pound for pound, pretty much, their backs on a bench. Remember that Olympic weightlifter from Turkey, Pocket Hercules, as the TV commentators called him? Rory brings that man to mind. A great body for cat-and-cat golf. If only golf tournaments were settled in gyms. Maybe Tiger was throwing everybody off, showing up in player parking with a gym bag and sleeveless tee. 

Sunday’s golf — Goliath v. Goliath! — was fascinating. PGA Tour star v. a LIV Golf star. (Where does your allegiance lie?!) But that question is a commentary weighed down by current events. What both men were really doing was playing for immortality.

So there was Rory McIlroy in the penultimate pairing, off at 2:10 p.m. And there was Bryson DeChambeau in the final one, 11 minutes later. Yes, they were playing for the winner’s check, $4.3 million. And something more permanent than that. They were playing to join the two-timers club, to join the ranks of the men who have won the U.S. Open twice. McIlroy won the Open in 2011 at Congressional. Bryson DeChambeau won the Open at Winged Foot in 2020. They were looking for a second engraving.

Ernie Els is a member of the club. To win one Open, Ernie told me Sunday afternoon, while the golf was unfolding, is an accomplishment that will follow you around for the rest of your life. “Win a second Open and guys will look at you differently,” he said. “Win it twice, it means you’re made of something special. You’re not a fluke. The second win says a lot about how much you love the game, the sacrifice you’ll make for it, the pain you’ll go through to do it.” The joys are physical and mental. The pains are, too.

Lee Trevino has his name on the trophy twice. So does (to limit this list to the living) Andy North, Curtis Strange, Lee Janzen, Retief Goosen and Brooks Koepka. While we’re at it, let’s have a moment for a man gone too soon, Payne Stewart, who won the ’91 Open at Hazeltine National and the ’99 Open here. Four months later he was dead, a plane ride gone bad. On that basis, what’s a missed putt?

But we’re all golfers here. When you’re over that putt? It’s everything.

Rory mcilroy leaving the Pinehurst clubhouse after us open on sunday
Inside the tense moments after Rory McIlroy’s calamitous U.S. Open defeat
By: Alan Bastable

Golf is both. Golf has always been both. You have to be the cat and the mouse. Woods’ path to 15 majors began with drives that were 30 yards longer than the field average. He got to 15 by making virtually every meaningful putt within four feet he ever stood over. Hundreds and hundreds of short putts. He got that close to the hole with lag putts and a chipping game and a pitching game and a bunker game that was like nothing the game has seen. He had all the shots, all the moves.

This is a cruel way of cutting to the chase scene, Rory’s miss from 30 inches on the 16th hole. The tournament turned on it. “I’d never wish that on anyone,” DeChambeau said. They say that every shot makes somebody happy, but let’s believe him. Let’s believe him because nothing could capture the spirit of what golf is supposed to be about better than that.

With his bogey there, McIlroy went from seven under and leading the tournament to six under and tied with DeChambeau, standing about 200 yards away at the moment. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad. Just agonizing to watch, agonizing to think about, but also a stunningly efficient reminder that to win a U.S. Open you have to  . . . do it all. That’s why U.S. Opens are golf’s greatest tests. Ernie will tell you that. So will Phil Mickelson. If we could perform an on-deadline séance here, Sam Snead would, too. They never got one, let alone two.

The course, the No. 2 course here at Pinehurst, is truly great. One of the great courses in the world, the touring pro and architecture buff Zac Blair will tell you. It’s a shame that the upcoming Opens here, if kept on the traditional June schedule, will always be unpleasantly hot and humid. But the course is special, brown, rugged, bouncy. When McIlroy launched a towering tee shot on the par-3 15th, he gave it two wee knee bends and a simmah-down-now with his right palm. It was a towering 7-iron that went over. A punch 6 that pitched on the front edge might have been a better play but golf doesn’t give you two cracks at it. He had gone from 8 under to 7 under there, DeChambeau either watching or listening all the while. Crowd noises were carrying in the warm wind, just as they do at Augusta. The whole spectacle was more painful than exhilarating, but more than anything it was a powerful reminder of what it means to play for immortality.

When McIlroy missed the 15th green, leading to a bogey, he didn’t know a missed 30-inch putt was on deck. When he made that bogey on 16, he didn’t know that he’d need four shots from 123 yards on the last hole for another bogey. Cat v. Cat, in the end, turned on little things. Little shots. Making this choice, not that one. There’s no criticism here. It was golf. It is golf.

“It’s very demanding, trying to win a second Open,” Lee Janzen told me Sunday afternoon, with the game on. “Rory on 5: two nice shots, a great putt and he makes a [bogey] 6. I watch how amazing today’s generation plays and I wonder how I won. I’m guessing others who are well past their playing days have felt the same. It’s hard to win any event. A major is [harder yet]. I didn’t think I needed to win a second to earn any status, but when it happened , I knew. It’s rare. I know many great players who never won a major or only one. I appreciate the respect that people give me, for winning two.” Two U.S. Opens. One at Baltusrol, one at Olympic. It makes your heart race, just thinking about it.

And now Bryson DeChambeau knows. He knows the feelings that come with winning two U.S. Opens, one at Winged Foot, the other at Pinehurst No. 2. That’s some pairing, and we’re not talking about what wine you’ll have with your entrée.

As Sunday was turning into Monday, DeChambeau was at a sedate gathering on a wide lawn in front of an old mansion in the village of Pinehurst. Fred Perpall, the urbane USGA president, was chatting up the winner. They’re both from Dallas. DeChambeau was having a drink from the winner’s trophy. It was not college high jinks. In 2020, after his Open win, DeChambeau went out for raucous fun, in the company of Eric Trump and many others. That was then. We can all make a good guess about Rory’s state, as that Sunday wrapped. Flying to South Florida on a private plane, his mind spinning.

Next month, at Royal Troon, DeChambeau will try to win his first British Open. Rory McIlroy will try to win his second British Open. Maybe some version of this story will be written again, but with a different ending. It’s hard to leave here not being impressed with Bryson DeChambeau’s grit and skill, his power and finesse and thinking. But if you don’t feel for Rory you’re not breathing. His second Open was within his grasp.

“Tough to watch today if you’re a Rory fan and absolutely thrilling if you’re a Bryson fan,” Ernie said when it was all over. “It was sport at its finest. Kill or be killed.”

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.

Watch, play, win. Chirp Golf is your home for the best of real money Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) and Free-To-Play games.

Watch, play, win

Chirp Golf is your home for the best of real money Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) and Free-To-Play games. Featuring simple to play. easy to learn, and fun games. Chirp Golf has something for every golf fan.

Scan to Download:

Google Play Apple Store