Beginning Thursday, 156 players from 27 countries will compete for the national championship of American golf, the 114th U.S. Open, to be contested on Pinehurst’s No. 2 Course in North Carolina. It will be a far cry from the very first U.S. Open, when 11 hearty competitors smacked their gutta-percha balls off small hills of Rhode Island sand at the Newport Country Club.
Among those 11 was nary an American. Charles B. MacDonald, from Chicago, withdrew from the event after winning the more prestigious U.S. Amateur championship earlier in the week on the same course.
In all, there were six Scots, one Canadian — the lone amateur — and three players from England in the inaugural field. One of the Englishmen was 19-year-old Horace Rawlins, who arrived in the United States only eight months earlier to begin a stint as Newport’s resident golf professional.
According to The New York Times, “the wind blew half a gale over the links, and the air was cold. Fine play, therefore, was quite impossible. But, under the circumstances, the scores were remarkably good.”
Rawlins and his fellow competitors sturdied themselves against the biting conditions for a total of 36 holes; two tours of the nine-hole course in the morning followed by two more in the afternoon. His local knowledge served Rawlins well, as he posted a total score of 173 (45-46-41-41) to win. Scotland’s Willie Dunn finished in second place, two strokes back.
“Rawlins’s play, on the whole, was a remarkable exhibition,” according to the Times. “His was a well-balanced game, strong in all its elements, yet brilliant in none.”
The newly formed National Golf Association rewarded Rawlins with a robust $200 dollars, $50 of which was to be used for purchase of a gold medal. A silver cup was also presented, which resided at Newport Country Club for one year, until James Foulis won the 1896 U.S. Open and carried the trophy west to Chicago.
As one of the preeminent courses of its time, Newport went on to host many notable tournaments. The sport itself fared well, too, led stateside by its burgeoning national championship. Within 10 years, the U.S. Open field had grown from 11 to 83. When the amateur Francis Ouimet stunned the golfing world in 1913, he was one of 165 competitors. By 1925, the U.S. Open had swelled in both popularity and players, with 445 men in the hunt.
Now, nearly 120 years later, with the U.S. Open winner earning a cool $1 million-plus, it’s quaint to think that it all started on a cold, breezy links in Rhode Island.
One man who has never claimed the winner’s share is Phil Mickelson, though he has won $300,000 or more in seven of his last 15 U.S. Open starts. The lovable lefty, haunted by six second-place finishes at the event, needs only the U.S. Open title to complete a career Grand Slam of golf’s majors. He’ll be the center of attention and a sentimental favorite this week, but according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers, Rory McIlroy is the most likely to win.
Fresh off a very public and odd breakup with his fiance, and a mixed-bag performance at the Memorial, McIlroy consulted Jack Nicklaus for U.S. Open tips. The Golden Bear advised him to consider changing things up in the midst of a bad round, among other things. The 25-year-old Englishman is hoping Nicklaus’ nuggets set him on the straight and narrow at Pinehurst No. 2.
Another oddsmaker favorite is Adam Scott, the world’s top-ranked player. The Australian has three top-five finishes in his past five events, including a win at Colonial in late May, so momentum is clearly on his side.
This year’s winner of The Masters, Bubba Watson, is also riding a confident wave and ranks as a 20-1 pick to win at Pinehurst, according to VegasInsider.com. The world’s third-ranked player finished third at last week’s Memorial and already has a pair of wins in 2014 (The Masters and the Northern Trust Open). His scrambling, creative style will be an intriguing fit for Pinehurst No. 2, which will look dramatically different from previous U.S. Open venues with the customary long rough replaced by native sands and wiregrass after a recent renovation.
Joining Watson at 20-1 is youthful Texan Jordan Spieth, ranked No. 10 in the world. He finished second to Watson at Augusta National and fourth at The Players Championship in early May, leaving the golf world waiting eagerly for his breakthrough. Just 20 years old, Spieth is seeking his first major championship.
Any discussion of a major must also include the obligatory mention of Tiger Woods, who is currently stuck on 14 major victories, his last coming at the 2008 U.S. Open. He won’t add to that total this week, since he is still recovering from back surgery and is expected to be out of tournament action until at least July.