U.S. (Open) vs the World (Cup)

By Sterling Pingree

Two major sporting events started on Thursday, the U.S. Open golf championship and the World Cup. As I write this, I’m watching the number one ranked player in the world, son in law of Wayne Gretzky, Dustin Johnson battle Shinnecock Hills golf club. Johnson, 2016 Open champion, is playing with Justin Thomas the reigning PGA champion and Tiger Woods, winner of 14 major championships. As it stands, Tiger is struggling at +11 for the tournament, and Thomas is mounting a small comeback but is struggling to reach par. Johnson holds a one shot lead at -2 and is one of very few players who are under par during a rain tinged second round.

What I’m getting at is this tournament is tough. The United States Golf Association has sharpened the teeth of this beast of a course, but not the mower blades. The rough is long and punishing, the greens faster than Usain Bolt and that’s all supposed to be wrapped up in a tidy 70 strokes per round as this course only features just two par 5’s. Last year at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka won at -16 in a tournament that saw 31 players finish under par, the set up at Shinnecock this year is in direct response. The USGA wants punishing, they want brutal, they essentially want the winner of the tournament to be the only player under par. They want it to be like the 1968 AL batting title when Carl Yastrzemski was the only player to bat over .300.

From what I’m seeing on social media however is that this is bad for golf, people don’t want to see the best players in the world struggle and there is a bit of truth to that. The casual golf fan probably doesn’t want to watch professionals play like they do on weekends at their local track, but the notion that this type of set up is bad for the game is wrong.

The beauty of the four major tournaments (The Masters, The U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship) is that all four of them are different. The Masters is at Augusta National every year, the U.S. Open is a grind towards red numbers, the Open Championship is challenged on links style courses in horrible weather and winds.

The fourth major, the PGA Championship essentially has no identity. It’s the last major of the year and that’s about the only unique claim that it has. It’s played on great courses across the country, the scores are generally pretty good and it has seen some great moments over the years, but nobody looks forward to it because besides having an elite field, it really just looks like most weeks on the PGA Tour. The U.S. feels important because of its toughness, that’s the part of the tournament that sets it apart from the rest.

The term open applies to this tournament more than any other, because it truly is open. Roy McAvoy said it best in the movie Tin Cup:

“It’s open. Anybody that’s got a 2 handicap or better has a shot at it. You just have to get through a local and sectional qualifier. And then like Doral or Colonial or AT&T, they can’t keep you out. They can’t ask if you’re a garbage man or a bean picker or a lousy driving range pro whose check is signed by a stripper. If you qualify, you’re in!”

Casual sports fans aren’t paying attention right now to the U.S. Open right now, because the World Cup has begun. Here is what I know about the World Cup:

  • It’s a soccer tournament.
  • It’s in Russia this time.
  • The USA didn’t qualify because of a loss to Trinidad and Tobago. (Never play two countries at once!)
  • This is the men’s version of the tournament.
  • This is the biggest sporting event that has ever happened because soccer is the most popular sport everywhere else in the world.

The last point here kills me, soccer is the most popular sport in the rest of the world therefore, you’re wrong if you don’t like it. It’s the old bridge argument, if everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you jump too? The rest of the world uses the metric system, we haven’t adopted that either. The irony is that I find the metric system more exciting than I do soccer.

My argument is that without the United States in the tournament, there’s no horse in the race. The Olympics (the closest comparison to the World Cup because of the every four years schedule) can draw you in because of the stories of the individuals competing in a million different events and if there isn’t a clear person to root for, you can always just root for the person from your country.

The new narrative now that the United States might get to host the tournament in 2026 is, “By the time that tournament rolls around, soccer will be the biggest sport in America.” Does the host team get an automatic bid into the tournament?

Ever have a sports conversation, making small talk, where you discuss whatever the number one topic is at that moment when you accidentally find out someone’s a soccer fan? You always get admonished like this:

You: “You watch the Finals last night? Can you believe J.R. Smith didn’t know the score?”

Person: “No. I don’t watch American basketball (like they’re busy watching Canadian basketball only). I’ve been spending MY time watching the Belgium Primer Cup Championships. I got up at 3am to view Chauncey FC take on Hollinshurst United via a streaming site on the dark web.”

You: “Lebron’s gonna leave.”

Soccer fans make you feel bad about the sports you like because they’re not soccer. The NFL doesn’t have guys running around a two acre field for an amount of time determined at the discretion of the referees (injury time can be infinite) where there is very little scoring? I’m out. Fans of the NFL pull their hair out over the ambiguity of the catch rule, in soccer the game can be 10 minutes longer because the official arbitrarily says so. That’d go over huge in a Patriots-Steelers game with home field on the line.

I’m not going to say that the U.S. Open is better than the World Cup, just that I’m going to watch more of it. Top players missing the cut isn’t good for golf, but those are the rules. With both of these tournaments, people tend to focus on the negative. The USA isn’t in the World Cup, that’s bad. Tiger Woods is 14 shots off the lead through two rounds, that’s not a good thing but that doesn’t mean everything in the event is bad. Dustin Johnson is the world’s number 1 player at the moment and is leading the U.S. Open again, two majors under his belt would launch him into the Spieth orbit of the game’s greatest stars.

My point is: Happy Father’s Day.

Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.