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The U.S. Open is the best major, and it's not even close

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

You could take Amen Corner, drop it into the Old Course and hold a British Open for the ages. But the U.S. Open would still be the best major. You could play the PGA Championship in April, at Pebble Beach, with Tiger and Phil paired together on Sunday. Nice, but the U.S. Open would still be the best major.

Ensconce me in azaleas and dogwoods; bury me in heather and single malt Scotch. Doesn't matter - the U.S. Open is the best thing going in golf, and the 2004 rendition may be the best of the best.

Why is our national championship the major of all majors?

The venues, pound for pound, are superior to those used in the British Open and PGA Championship, and a fistful (Shinnecock Hills included) are as good or better than Augusta National. The top-heavy field trumps that of the reverentially indentured Masters and the international flavored British Open. And most years, it edges PGA's respectable pairings. As strong as a 375-pound K-1 fighter, and yet 8,000 Roy McAvoys, with a two-handicap and a dream, can play their way into the fray.

Then there's this little thing called par. Remember it? The U.S Open, more than the other three majors, is contested against the very number that should define success or failure on a golf course.

From 1907-2003, only 48 winners shot par or better and mind-bending 43 were over par. The average winning score since the tournament went to 72 holes in 1898 is 288. That figure is as close to even par as Gary McCord is to the 19th hole at any given time.

Every once in a blue moon (no orange with mine, please) a player scorches the U.S. Open like Woods' 12-under at Pebble Beach in 2000, or Jack Nicklaus ' 272 at Baltusrol in 1980. Most of the time, however, Payne Stewart's 1-under at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 or Nicklaus' 290 at Pebble in 1972 are good for a top five finish.

"Par is never going to be a bad score out here," Woods said at his press conference on Tuesday when asked about Shinnecock Hills and its U.S. Open setup.

Gripe all you want about the USGA's insatiable need to make America's hardest golf courses even harder by going chia pet on the rough, cinching the fairways tighter than J-Lo's jeans and hiring Rees Jones to stretch the back tees to 4.2 miles. The men and women in blue blazers make no excuses about wanting Sunday to come down to a duel between the world's best players.

This is not a major in which sentimental upstarts like Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis prevail. The U.S. Open once belonged to Nicklaus (18 top ten finishes), Walter Hagen (16), Ben Hogan (15), Gene Sarazen (14), Arnold Palmer (13) and Sam Snead (12). It's future is in the hands of Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Mickelson. If and when a darkhorse slips in and steals a victory, it's one with the yeoman-like consistency of a Jim Furyk, or the accuracy and short game skills of a Lee Janzen.

But enough about the past and the future; on to the present. Why will this year be the best of the best?

The field as wide open as a Shinnecock Hills fairway is narrow. Tiger is stalking the ghost of his former self, knowing all he needs to do is find the fairways to be the player he was just two years ago at Bethpage. Els, Mickelson and Singh are all stalking Tiger, licking their chops at the idea of ousting him from the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings.

Watching from the shadows are Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Chad Campbell, ready to pounce should one of the Vegas odds makers' favorites stumble. All of this drama will take place on a storied William Flynn designed track 1981 U.S. Open champ David Graham once described as "the perfect golf course."

Nicklaus once distilled the U.S. Open down to its essence, calling it the "the best examination of a player." Upon further examination, the U.S. Open remains, and will always be, the best major.

Ranking the Majors

1. U.S. Open - Best venues, best field, and contested against that magical number - par.

2. The Masters - Rite of spring and only major played on the same course every year. And what a course it is.

3. The British Open - History, international flare and emphasis on the ground game make the Open Championship a true gem. Quirky courses, a weaker field and unruly elements keep it from the top.

4. The Players Championship - The "fifth" major is the fourth major in our books, what with a field that is second to none playing on one of the Tour's toughest tracks.

5. PGA Championship - Dog days of summer, second tier venues and lack of sex appeal keep the PGA in the cellar.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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