The hidden reason why Monday of U.S. Open week is so much fun

Tiger Woods Charlie Woods Pinehurst

Tiger Woods and his son, Charlie, take a walk around Pinehurst No. 2 early Monday morning with Jordan Spieth.

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RALEIGH-DURHAM INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, N.C. — One of my favorite aspects of major championships are the Monday morning flights, the ones we take to get out of town when the week is over. One big shared exhale. But I like the flights on major weeks’ other Mondays, too: the ones we take, from wherever we’re traveling from, to bring the golf world together for a week. 

Anyone headed to Pinehurst for the U.S. Open has had their flight itineraries set for weeks, if not months. Raleigh-Durham was expecting plenty of arrivals via Columbus — the closest stop to last week’s Memorial. Martin Kaymer and Adrian Meronk, victorious members of Cleeks GC, arrived via United 6148 from Houston. The movers and shakers in media mostly came via JFK International in New York City, everyone from Golf Channel to Barstool Sports. PGA Tour executives, you’d expect, would be coming from Jacksonville, right? That’s why I was surprised to find Jason Gore, Starbucks grande in hand, at Gate E8 Monday morning at O’Hare International in Chicago. 

It’s the weirdest home game of sorts for Gore this week, as he spent three years working for the USGA as its first-ever director of player relations — trying to make sure the U.S. Open would adhere to players’ sensibilities — and also spent one fateful weekend in contention at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He held the 36-hole lead that year before shooting 84 in the final round from the penultimate group, sliding down to T49.

I boarded my flight two spots ahead of Gore and plopped into a seat seven rows behind him, only to click into Geoff Shackelford’s overnight newsletter filing from Pinehurst, which linked to a fantastic hindsight diary Gore had written for the USGA about that week, his closest scratch at superstardom. 

“I just remember thinking, I couldn’t wait for Sunday to be over,” Gore wrote. “But I also couldn’t wait to do all of this again.”

Gore is an executive vice president at the PGA Tour now, but he’ll always talk like a player, and he’ll always know what it felt like to try and win a U.S. Open at Pinehurst. To read his inner thoughts on my phone while also being able to look up and see the back of his head was kind of trippy, and only possible on the Monday morning of a major championship week. 

We might read similar thoughts from Rickie Fowler someday. He was the closest finisher to Martin Kaymer the last time Pinehurst hosted a U.S. Open. Count him among the handful of earlier-than-expected arrivers from missed cuts at the Memorial. Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and defending champion Wyndham Clark, too. Likely NetJets direct into Moore County Airport. 

This may be the third major of the season and the 27th event of the PGA Tour calendar but it’s the first event where everyone who is here has absolutely earned it. Fowler hasn’t netted a top 10 since winning in Detroit last summer, but he still earned his tee time this week, via a fifth-place finish a year ago. Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott got in at the last minute. Scotty, via an exemption as top 60 in the world, and Garcia as the first alternate. It’s consecutive major No. 92 for Scott and career major No. 99 for Sergio. The U.S. Open would have gone on just fine without them, but I’m glad both are here. They still have major game. 

Tiger Woods arrived unlike most players — via his own plane, from Jupiter — descending on Pinehurst predictably early. Woods has made a habit of that in recent years, to get to a major site the weekend prior and have a knock-about on Sunday afternoon. Then another one Monday morning. Sometimes it’s just wedges and putter, sometimes it’s the full bag. Woods went with the latter this weekend, joined by his caddie, his manager, and his son, Charlie. This place must look different to Tiger. The last time he competed at Pinehurst was in 2005.  

There are no handouts with this tournament, which fills its field via the most stringent qualification system in all of pro golf. Thusly, there are no snubs. If you want to play, you can earn your way in. That’s the whole damn point with the YOU ESS OPEN. It’s open. Louis Oosthuizen closed himself off from qualifying. Talor Gooch didn’t try. Patrick Reed withdrew from his qualifier before teeing off and will miss his first major championship in more than a decade. David Puig, another LIV’er, has flown thousands of miles across the globe in a pursuit of major qualification, and the Spaniard’s game has traveled well with him. That meant playing in Macau in the winter and Saudi Arabia in the spring, and California a week ago, when he was medalist at a final qualifier, then staying in form at LIV Houston (T3). If he makes the cut, Puig will qualify for the Olympics in Paris.

While Monday of the Masters is all anticipation — the first major of the year, anything can happen! — this major feels riddled with anxiety, on a classically difficult course everyone has to either learn or relearn. The chasm between Scottie Scheffler and the rest of the field seems to only, somehow, get wider each week, best emphasized by the images snapped of Spieth Sunday afternoon, already practicing at Pinehurst before Scheffler had begun his final round at Muirfield. 

We’re only four weeks removed from how Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy arrived at the PGA Championship. McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship and made a quick Monday flight from Charlotte, around the time he was filing divorce papers. Schauffele had to be licking different wounds, unsure when it all would click for him at a major. I found his coach, Chris Como, in the locker room early that week and asked how Schauffele handles all the close calls.

“There’s nothing else to do but keep doing what you’re doing,” Como told me that morning, shrugging his shoulders. Five days later, I found Como behind the 18th green, tears in his eyes, Schauffele’s victorious hands stretching to the sky. Rest assured Schauffele will arrive at this major feeling differently than he has at any other. Collin Morikawa, Sunday’s runner-up, now has a chance to mimic Xander. Keep doing what you’re doing. Scottie Scheffler might not give a damn. 

Ultimately, that’s the one thing all of us who flew to Raleigh or Charlotte and rental-car’d our way to Pinehurst have in common. We’re all imagining what might happen between now and when we return those vehicles. We’re all curious about Scheffler. And Morikawa. And that puzzling 77-75 weekend from Viktor Hovland. And the 85 on Sunday from Shane Lowry. We’re all curious about Brooks Koepka, Mr. U.S. Open, who practiced on Monday with an alternate who likely won’t sniff the course come Thursday. We’re all looking at the same field list of exemptions and qualifiers and favorites and, as Gore phrased it nicely in his write-up, Cinderella stories like his.

“Hopefully they’ll be able to do what I couldn’t,” he wrote. “Win.”

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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