From a fan’s point of view, America’s two biggest majors may appear distinct. The Masters is a reunion, a celebration of the game in a grand setting. The U.S. Open is golf’s ultimate test, played on the some of best, most difficult and most historic courses in the country.
But as a player, those qualities have little meaning inside the ropes, where the goal is to be mentally tough, make good decisions and execute good shots. The odd thing is that for all their differences, the course setups at the Masters and U.S. Open course have become increasingly similar—ever-narrowing fairways that reward accuracy off the tee, as well as fast, firm greens that demand well-judged approach shots and precise putting. That said, each still requires a different approach, which I relish as a player.
As soon as the PGA Championship is over, I start thinking about the Masters, whereas I don’t start thinking about the U.S. Open until after the Masters. Since we play Augusta National every year and the course is so strategically fascinating and complex, it’s easy to ponder what I could have done better or how I can improve my attack of the holes.
For instance, I made triple bogey on the par-5 2nd hole in the first round last year. After driving it left near the creek (where you simply can’t miss), I managed to chip out, leaving a long third. I tried to hook a 3-iron into a pin all the way left but found more trouble than had I hit 3-wood toward the 7th green, leaving a simple wedge into the length of the green. Situations like this are where the older guys make good decisions: Just when I think they’ve hit it in the wrong spot, they are actually in the perfect spot for the day’s hole location.
Despite that early mistake, I was in contention until I made a quadruple bogey on the 15th hole Saturday. I laid up, thinking the pitch would be fairly simple. But the shot, over the lake to a very shallow green, is much longer than it looks. I’ve seen a lot of players spin that shot back in the water, and it’s easy to think: “What are they doing with all of that green to spare?”
Having done it myself, I have found it’s not as easy as it looks. At Augusta, you do not fully appreciate many of the nuances until you have made a double or triple bogey by hitting it in the wrong spot.
The U.S. Open is more of an execution contest in which players have to concentrate on hitting it long and straight, and most of all, getting the ball to land softly. Much success depends on getting up and down from 100 yards and in, so it’s no coincidence that Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, who specialize in this department, have done well.
It’s easy to get defensive at the U.S. Open, although I should say that by Sunday in 2006, I was slashing at the driver a bit more because I figured I might as well get it closer to the green to set up shorter approach shots. I’m not so sure that it’s a very wise approach most of the time, but it worked at Winged Foot.
Although I’m one of the last few on tour to hang onto my beloved 2-iron, Augusta is the one week I consider a 5-wood, for the 2nd, 4th, 13th and 15th holes. However, I am also considering it at the U.S. Open for getting out of the rough. Phil Mickelson has mastered a shot in which he advances it nicely out of deep rough with his hybrid, but I’m not quite as comfortable with that play yet.
Typically I go to both tournaments a couple of weeks beforehand to play a practice round then arrive the Sunday prior. I want to sign in at Augusta as early as possible to get ideal starting times for the practice rounds and the Par 3 Contest. The Masters practice rounds are the best of the year due to the celebratory atmosphere, presence of so many legends and great fun in playing the course (like skipping the ball across the water on the 16th).
During Masters and U.S. Open practice rounds, I practice putting more than at a normal tour stop—particularly long putts up tiers like at Nos. 5 and 6 at Augusta or at diabolically contoured Open greens such as Oakmont’s. But I hit mostly chips and bunker shots because whereas I can work on putting on the practice green, I can’t really capture the true nature of the on-course chip shots at most practice areas.
The U.S. Open is a longer week than the Masters. I am never physically tired at the end of either, but the U.S. Open can leave you mentally exhausted. Oakmont wore me out. Just when I felt like I was about to get on top of the course, I’d make a double bogey. At the Open, you won’t get a chance to get it back with an eagle like you can at Augusta. The lack of any openings really wears you down and marks the biggest difference between the two.
The U.S. Open is certainly not enjoyable while I’m playing, but there’s something very pleasing about shooting 70, a score that would leave me feeling like I didn’t get the most out of my round anywhere else.
Overall, if I could only play either the Masters or the U.S. Open this year, I’d be lying if I did not say the Masters. With the exception of the changes to the 11th and 17th holes, where the club has planted too many trees, it’s easily the most enjoyable, exciting and fulfilling tournament we play all year.