Oakmont and the Moral Character of the Competitor

This Father’s Day weekend is the weekend of Golf’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. The course is the most difficult U.S. Open venue and the most difficult course the PGA Tour ever plays. It has a history of identifying great players.

How does Oakmont do it? What sets the greatest of the great golfers apart from the merely great? What allows one player at an incredibly tough tournament like the US Open at Oakmont to win?

Oakmont is incredibly difficult, built on the side of a mountain, with narrow, sloping fairways, deep rough and bunkers, and hard, fast, sloping greens with poa grass (that gets slightly bumpy and of irregular length during the day). Different greens have slightly different speeds because of the poa. Stripped of trees, it is once again as first designed, bereft of trees for sight lines, and subject to the winds coming off the mountain. There are deep ditches a few yards off the fairways on one side of most holes. The greens are open to neither play along the ground nor target golf approaches in the air. It is an incredibly difficult course.

Normally, Oakmont is a par 71, but this week it is a par 70. From the back tees, its rating is a formidable 77.5 and its slope a cruel 147. I’ll skip the computations, but a ten handicap player, expected to score no better than 81 on a typical par 71 course, should score no better than 92 at Oakmont. Only a great player at the top of his game can score near par over four days at this course.

The difference between par and the rating of the course has its own effect on Tour players, who are used to scoring below par. This is a challenge to players, but it does not actually make the course any more physically or mentally challenging. It is a direct challenge to their moral character and force of will. You might actually call it the cruelty of Oakmont. What is it about the cruelty of the U.S. Open at Oakmont that is important to its task of identifying the best player in the world?

Phil Mickelson, second best player in the world, missed the cut at Oakmont. He was at 11 over par after two rounds. He blamed his poor play on his wrist, which he injured while practicing pitches out of the rough at Oakmont. His average score over two days was 75.5, two strokes under the rating of the course. And yet he didn’t make the cut. He has been complaining to the media and anyone who will listen about the course.

Tiger Woods, best player in the world, is in second place after three days with an average score of 71 1/3, more than six strokes under the rating of the course. And he hasn’t been playing at the top of his form. If he had made as many putts on Saturday as he usually does when he is hot, he could have scored 64, which would have been 14.5 strokes under the rating for the day for a total score of -1 to par, or an average score of 69 2/3 or nearly eight strokes under the rating of the course. Tiger Woods has said that the course is difficult, but fair (meaning not gimmicky). And his score, as well as the score of first place Aaron Baddely, proves that the course can be played well.

It is old fashioned but useful to divide the human being into Body, Mind, and Soul. For the purposes of Sports, the Body consists of athleticism, the muscular-skeletal portion, reflex, and conditioning, the Mind is used for strategic and tactical thinking about how to accomplish goals in different situations in the sport, and the contribution of the Soul is to leadership, moral character, willpower, responsibility, persistence in the face of adversity, and at the point of greatness the ability to raise the bar in the sport. All Sports involve Body, Mind and Soul.

Other players can and do rise to match or surpass Tiger’s physical condition, his flexibility, his reflexes, the purity of his swing, and they can likewise match him in planning and strategic thinking on the course. But it is in the Soul that they don’t match up. It is Tiger Woods’ Soul that sets him apart from Phil Mickelson on the golf course. It is his persistence in the face of adversity, his competitive fire, his moral character, his fierceness, his ability to command a putt to find the hole, and the way that he intimidates and dominates competitors, who lose their powers of concentration and make more mistakes than usual under the pressure, allowing him to emerge victorious. The Soul is what makes all great players great, from Bobby Jones to Walter Hagen to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus. And it is what sets Tiger Woods apart.

The extreme difficulty and cruelty of Oakmont emphasize the adversity that players face. The adversity gets into players’ heads and breaks their concentration. It is only by force of will, only by competitive fire and moral character that players can overcome the pressure and play as well as they are capable. Normal PGA tournaments don’t present the degree of adversity that the U.S. Open offers, particularly at Oakmont. Only a complete player whose Body, Mind, and Soul are all at the very highest level can triumph here.

Every great sportsman or sportswoman has the whole package of Body, Mind, and Soul. Every great man or woman has the whole package. That is what Oakmont, Golf, and Sport offer at the highest level, the ability to identify and exercise all the aspects of greatness that are part of the story of Human excellence.

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