The Open makes pro golfers look ridiculous. That might be the point
HOYLAKE, England — On the occasions you see a professional golfer line up to do something that looks very hard or stupid, that’s typically because the same shot would be hard or stupid for you, a much worse golfer.
Take Phil Mickelson’s iconic shot from the pine straw right of 13 at Augusta National as prime example. You would be more likely to slip on the needles, shank the ball off the trunk of a nearby tree and have it ricochet back off the side of your overconfident skull than pull that shot off. But you know how it went for Lefty.
So when I saw Justin Thomas line up a short chip shot over a bunker shot on the 1st hole at Royal Liverpool on Thursday, my first thought was something like this:
“Huh, it looks like he’s going to chip this directly into the bunker.”
My second thought, which came immediately thereafter, was to dismiss the first thought, because Justin Thomas is very literally an all-world chipper of the golf ball and I am staring enviously at the bowl of chocolate pudding being consumed by my neighbor in the media center.
But then, sure enough, Thomas did exactly what it looked like he’d do. He chipped it directly into the far wall of the bunker. It hit off the far side and back into the middle. He probably hadn’t missed his spot by more than a yard or so. But as a result it looked very, very dumb.
Welcome to the Open Championship.
The Open is not the most difficult of the four majors. It may, in fact, be the least difficult. And while the Masters makes chipping look like 3D chess and the PGA Championship makes birdies look like acts of heroism and the U.S. Open makes golf look like a mental torture chamber, the Open is still the best at making its competitors look very dumb.
It’s not fair to single out Thomas, so let’s give him some company.
Enter Jordan Spieth, JT’s famous pal who drew a funny lie on the right side of the par-4 8th and then did something he’d never done before.
“I just had my face wide open, ball above my feet on a really bad lie, trying to flop cut an 8-iron,” Spieth said. “I feel like I’m as good as anybody at that shot and I guess the hosel got there first. I’m not really sure.”
That’s as good an explanation of a shank as you can ask for. It also led to a lost ball and a double-bogey 6. Sure, Spieth bounced back. He posted 69. But he admitted he was shaken up by the bizarre miss. Funky lies can make you look dumb, and the Open is filled with funky lies in the rough.
Want another example? Good! We don’t even have to leave the friend group.
Rickie Fowler was cruising along to the tune of two under par through 17 holes when he arrived at No. 18. Under typical American-golf circumstances the 18th would be a relatively straightforward par-5, but there’s quirk injected into every old-school links course, and the 18th at Royal Liverpool has internal out-of-bounds running down the entirety of the right side, just paces off the fairway, because that part of the property used to be a horse track. Fowler found the fairway with his tee shot but then fired his second shot well right and well O.B. Then he dropped and hit another ball well right and well O.B. His next shot was actually brilliant; he hit the green from some 290 yards. But there are some shots that can’t be un-shot, and two O.B. balls en route to snowman 8 fall very much in that category.
Perhaps Fowler feels better knowing that more than a dozen pros also made double bogey or worse at No. 18. Misery loves company and looking stupid does, too. I should mention that to Collin Morikawa, who despite being a generational irons player hit a giant block (or semi-shank?) with his approach shot at the par-4 3rd onto the opposite side of the same ex-horse track. That was O.B., too. And it was double bogey.
Over the years very few golfers have ridden the knife’s edge of stupidity and brilliance better than Mickelson himself, and Thursday was no exception. He drove the green on the par-4 4th (brilliant) nearly striking Morikawa in the process (stupid) as he finished off a birdie putt of his own.
Just three holes later he was searching for his ball in a giant gorse bush (stupid), the sort of activity that’ll make you hurt both outside and in. And two holes after that he nearly jarred his tee shot at the par-3 9th (brilliant), finishing just inches from the cup.
There was also the sort of garden-variety stupidity of playing professional golf, like Rory McIlroy horseshoeing a two-footer at No. 8. That’s never going to look good.
But the main catalyst in the Open’s mischief factory is the pot bunkers. Finding any bunker this side of the pond has always seemed like an excellent way to make something bad happen. This week that’s amplified, thanks to a dirty trick the course setup rascals deployed to make balls settle near the edges of bunkers and their steep edges.
That led to Tony Finau using a putter in the bunker and playing backwards just to leave himself a chance at extracting the next one.
That led to Jon Rahm pitching backwards out of a fairway bunker, leaving him 162 yards for his third shot when he’d had just 159 yards left with his second.
Lucas Herbert was tied for the early lead when he arrived at the short par-3 17th but then missed the green left. Then he hit his chip too hard, which meant it tumbled past the hole and over the green and down the slope on the other side, where it entered a chasmic, controversial new bunker. It took him two shots to escape from there, he walked off with a brutal triple-bogey 6 and he was clearly perturbed by the reaction from the spectators.
“Felt like there was about 5,000 professional golfers sitting around us in the stands watching it. But it’s just not easy,” Herbert said. The spectators are, of course, the key to the stupidity of professional golf. Most of us humiliate ourselves in the company of our own foursomes but these fine gentlemen do so for our entertainment.
Leading the golf tournament does not, in fact, exempt you from looking silly. Enter Christos Lamprecht, the amateur whose surprise opening-round 66 put him atop the leaderboard — but it wasn’t achieved without contorting his 6-foot-8 frame around the edge of a pot bunker at the 4th.
There’s simple beauty in the stupidity. At its most elemental golf is a game of humans in fields with balls navigating obstacles. The honor doesn’t come from avoiding the obstacles. There’s honor in confronting stupidity, accepting it and plowing through it. The honor comes from being in the field to begin with, knowing obstacles await.
Thomas’ day started with the indignity of that bunker at No. 1. Plenty of obstacles awaited Thomas at the close of his round, too. He hit his second shot out of bounds. He hit his fourth into a greenside bunker. He hit his fifth off the wall of that bunker, and it caromed into the adjacent greenside bunker. He hit his sixth sideways out of that bunker, playing away from the hole. Before long he was tapping in for a quadruple-bogey 9, a miserable way to cap off a round of 11-over 82.
On Thursday, the only golfer who didn’t look stupid was a man on the beach bordering Royal Liverpool. He wielded a driver and a small pile of golf balls, took a wide stance and swung away, sending one down the sand. It looked terrifically zen.
After all, you can’t miss a fairway when there is no fairway. You can’t be scared of bunkers when sand is all you’ve got. You can’t screw up a hole when there is no hole.
But you can’t win the Open Championship that way, either.