Nick Faldo thought he would uncover the secret to winning the U.S. Open when he arranged for a meeting at Shady Oaks one year with four-time champion Ben Hogan.
Faldo, ever the analyst, asked Hogan what it would take for him to win.
"Shoot the lowest score," Hogan replied.
If that conversation had taken place 20 years later, Hogan's answer might have been slightly different.
"Just shoot par."
Even par would have been good enough to win the past three U.S. Opens _ Michael Campbell at Pinehurst No. 2 (even par), Geoff Ogilvy at wicked Winged Foot (5 over) and Angel Cabrera at Oakmont (5 over).
Whether that's what it takes this week at Torrey Pines remains to be seen. So far, everyone is raving about a golf course that is stern but fair, from the generous fairways to the graduated height of rough. But opinions tend to change when scores are put down on the card.
Perhaps no other major has a fascination with par as the U.S. Open.
Torrey Pines has been around for a half-century as a par 72. But with the U.S. Open in town this week, it will play as a par 71. The sixth hole will play 515 yards and be the longest par 4 in tournament history.
It actually will play shorter than usual, but almighty par will be protected.
That's not all bad.
Mike Davis is the senior director of rules and competition for the U.S. Golf Association and the person responsible for setting up the golf course. Since taking over two years ago from Tom Meeks, his work has been universally praised, even with such high scores winning the U.S. Open.
Davis made perfect sense in explaining why No. 6 should be converted to a par 4.
"Does it meet the definition of a par 5?" he said.
A good tee shot that stays out of the rough or the bunkers on the left side can leave as little as a 4-iron into the green that is open in the front. There's not a ton of trouble going for the green. In his view, it played more as a strong par 4.
He references No. 9 at Oakmont, which played as a par 5 when Ernie Els won in 1994, and a par 4 last year. The ninth hole features an uphill tee shot to a green so large that the back end of it serves as the putting green. During the U.S. Amateur in 2003, Davis noticed players hitting anything from a 5-iron to a pitching wedge for their second shot.
"That didn't meet my definition of a par 5," he said.
Fair enough. But either way, what matters is the number on the card, not the number to par.
Remember when Arnold Palmer came from seven shots behind to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. He said to sports writer Bob Drum before teeing off that he could shoot 65 and win because that would put him at 280.
"Doesn't 280 always win the Open?" Palmer said.
These days, he might have said, "Doesn't even par always win the Open?"
The USGA's philosophy of converting par 5s into par 4s began in 1951 at Oakland Hills. That U.S. Open was famous for the winner (Hogan) and how he described the course.
"I'm glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees," Hogan said.
He finished at 7-over 287. But if the USGA had left Nos. 8 and 18 as par 5s that week, and Oakland Hills had been a par 72, Hogan still would have won with a score of 1-under 287.
Would he still have called it a monster?
That's why it sounded so disingenuous when Jim Hyler of the USGA executive committee said with a straight face, "Contrary to what a lot of people think, there is no target winning score. We are not trying to protect par."
Jim Furyk, who tied the U.S. Open scoring record at Olympia Fields in 2003, was asked if he believed that.
"No," he replied.
He wasn't entirely serious, but he made it clear the USGA is not interested in 15 under winning its premier championship. Protecting par has helped give the U.S. Open definition it never needed.
The Masters, before it was overhauled to add a half-mile (800 meters) of beautifully manicured grass, routinely produced winning scores around 276. It has never been wrapped up in par, and even now, the changes were to put the same clubs in the hands of players that Bobby Jones envisioned when he built Augusta National.
The U.S. PGA Championship has some of the lowest scores, due mainly to it being held in August when the greens require more water to keep them alive in the summer heat. The British Open is the least bothered by scoring. If the wind blows, the scores are high. If it's calm, the scores are low. Congratulations, see you next year.
It could have been worse at Torrey Pines.
Rees Jones Jr., who buffed up the course to attract the U.S. Open, was among those who wanted the par-5 18th hole to play as a par 4. With a pond in front of the green, there would have been more gore than glory on the final hole. Davis deserves credit for persuading the blue coats to make it a par 5, which could be the most exciting closing hole at a U.S. Open.
Imagine an eagle on the last hole to win.
"As far as protecting par, I firmly believe the USGA wants to make the golf course as difficult and as testing a golf course as they can without going overboard," Furyk said. "For the best players in the world, that's going to be shooting somewhere around even par. But if it's 5 under or 5 over, I don't think it really matters."
Par always has been irrelevant, and it still is.
What Hogan once told Faldo is still true today. Lowest score wins.