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Fathers and Sons and the U.S. Open - Part 1
Editor's Note: Jay wrote this piece in real-time, while watching the U.S. Open on Saturday. He'll be doing another piece during the course of the final round, with comments interspersed taken earlier from the players about their fathers.
Happy Father's Day! It's Sunday at the U.S. Open and, same as always, I'm excited for the tournament, but sad because you're not here. This is such a singular experience and I yearn to share it with you: to see your crystal blue eyes light up, to see that wide smile of wonder you get when something inspires you, and to see your eyebrows shoot through the ceiling when you say "Wow!" when something amazing happens. I miss you, Dad. I wish you were here.
I was chatting with Rand Jerris on the bus returning to the media parking lot, yesterday. You'll know him as the man who moderates the interviews with the players after they finish their rounds and then calls on the reporters to ask questions. He lamented the same thing: he never gets to see his kids on Fathers Day. He has three: Noah, Hope, and Ben. Noah is old enough to appreciate the tournament next year, so he told me he's going to try to have his dad bring Noah to Bethpage. So maybe if you and mom come down, you can sit with them. It did make me feel better to know I'm not alone in missing my family on the holiday. But hey! Through me, you get a bird's-eye view of the tournament, so here goes.
It's been a better tournament than I expected. Then again, it always is. I was so excited for Pinehurst in 2005, just agog with anticipation for my first big tournament since you took me to watch mom play when I was just three. But it exceeded my expectations so much more than I ever could have imagined. They have golf in their DNA in Carolina. And better still, when you go there, you come back with ten friends. When the waitress, gas station attendant, and plumber have better interlocking Vardon grips than you do, you know you're in Golftown, U.S.A.
Winged Foot was otherworldly, even before Phil's supernova. Nowhere else has a more devastating confluence of history and misery. It's where great champions go to die a bitter internment. That tournament in particular was shocking, beautiful and terrible to behold. I still crack up at mom calling me on my cell phone just before I was going to interview Phil after round four and shouting "TELL HIM I SAID HE'S AN [expletive deleted!]" A lot of people felt that way, but it's a bit unfair. After all, Winged Foot is ruthless, even more so than Oakmont.
Nevertheless, Oakmont was antique. I mean that in the old English sense of the world - like a precious, priceless painting or vase. Not a relic, but a well-polished classic. It looked so much better with the trees gone, like an emerald-green ski slope, a grassy Whiteface Mountain, iridescent.
But Torrey has surprised me at several turns. There's better architecture out there than people think. That canyon and the ocean are gorgeous. It's more of a cliff-top golf course than a links, but it has some great holes, the par-3s in particular. It's holding its defenses better than most anticipated and without being tricked up. Everyone is impressed with how fair it's been. I'd still rather play Bethpage Black: it's only 15 minutes away from me, it's considerably cheaper, tougher, and it's a more interesting design. Holes at Torrey run straight or bend only slightly; there's not many diagonal angles, dog-legs or strategic requirements. At Bethpage, the holes constantly shift. Bethpage has better greens as well. But hey, Torrey's one hell of a muni.
You have to see the size of the operation they have here. A quarter of a million people were turned through the turn-styles this weekend. That might be a few too many, especially the way the course bottlenecks in places due to this deep canyon that bisects the property. First, I went into the merchandise tent and thought I'd never get out again. They set it up like a maze to keep you inside so - to use the common phrase - you'll kick down some cake for swag. (That's "pay through the nose for gear," for those of you who are street cred impaired). I bought this cool little present for my best girl in New York. They have these Torrey Pines 2008 U.S. Open teddy bears. I got the last one…number 400 out of 400, autographed by the maker. I can hear you now: "How much did that cost?"
Then, when going for an iced coffee, I ran head first into a marauding horde of barbarians following the 1-2-3 pairing of Woods, Phil, and Adam Scott, and almost didn't escape. I felt like going Moooooooooooooooooooo!" the way we were forced into a herd. I liked the old way of British Open-U.S. Open-Masters champion better.
It took a while for the excitement of the tournament to build. Thursday, as usual was a scramble to figure out who the new guys were. Friday players began to "identify themselves" as either contenders or also-rans, and now it's late on moving day and Tiger being in the mix is making the tournament exciting. Anything can happen at anytime. We're always on pins and needles.
The big story, besides Tiger's knee, is the set-up. We've complained for years that the Open all but eliminates greenside recovery shots. Geoff Ogilvy astutlely and concisely summed it up: you hit your 60-degree lob wedge and nothing else. Well this year, with the "graded rough" - where the rough isn't too bad if you're just off the fairway, but deeper the further you are off-line - scores have been more reasonable than 5-over for a winning score. They're back to the 3-under to 5-under range that it was when I was growing up in the eighties.
It's had another unintended effect though. Driving accuracy and greens in regulation are down. They usually hover around 65% and 57% for the field in the average U.S. Open, but that's the average of the top 10 after two rounds this year. (Gone are the days of David Graham at Merion where he hit all 18 greens on Sunday). Though we have slightly lower scores, we're not rewarding driving accuracy and GIR as much this year. Look at these stats: we have twenty-two players averaging over 300 drives. Tiger and Dustin Johnson are essentially tied for first at 328. Scott, Garcia, Love, Casey, Andres Romero, and Cink are in the top dozen. Then you get guys like Oliver Wilson, Sweden's Robert Karlsson, and Brett Quigley.
Excuse me, but when did it start to be okay to let Quigleys and Swedes and Olivers average 300 yards?
Nevertheless Tiger is also top of the class or so in putting. He had 25 putts today despite hitting only 6 of 14 fairways and 9 of 18 greens. Through three days he's averaged 63% GIR, exactly 50% fairways hit, and 1.555 putts. Like he admitted to a guy at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake to its friends), "I love flat greens."
The other trade-off with rolling back the stringent, at times inflexible requirement of hitting fairways is that recovery shots are back in the mix, as well as a few birdies more and, accordingly, more excitement for the patrons. After all, these people pay good, green money for these tickets and they deserve excitement. They'll get more this weekend. I can just feel it. The tension has been steadily building over the course of the day and…
HOLY COW, WOODS JUST PITCHED IN FOR BIRDIE ON 17 FROM THE SPINACH PATCH AROUND THE GREEN! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I bet you said that just now too. Did you see that?!?...I was in the Media Center typing this to you, and there is a thirteen second delay between this one radio guy - one guy out of two hundred plus in the room right now - and the rest of the media center, including the gigantic Jumbotron screens on either side of the four hundred desks in our work room. For a good hour and a half now, we had all been working dutifully in relative silence. Suddenly we hear this shouting:
"Oh my goodness! What a shot from Tiger Woods! It's in the hole! Incredible!"
Everyone was concentrating so hard, the room really regarded the interruption as an annoyance at first, as in "What? What is this shouting?! I'm trying to work!" Then it sunk in and, as one, we all looked at one of the two big screens and saw the slam dunk pitch-in. We all went "OOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Slam. Dunk. I'm impressed. Every time he does something like that, he wins. Oh…there's goes the roar of the gallery from 17 on TV. Wait for it…there it is, now! There goes the roar from the gallery at 18; they just changed the scoreboard.
He's gonna be in the last group, and he's tied for the lead. If he wins once at a venue, he frequently repeats: St. Andrews, Augusta, Sawgrass (remember the '94 Amateur), Torrey, Firestone, Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black (next year, just scrape his name on the trophy twice tomorrow), Muirfield Village, Bay Hill, Medinah, stop me anytime.
I'd tell you more about the tournament, but you saw this opera before, it's a rerun. Tiger takes a victory lap in the sun. He might even wave to Phil from the first tee as Mickelson walks down 18. So I'll get to the real reason for this letter. I owe you everything I'm celebrating today, because if you hadn't taught me to love God, family, and golf, I wouldn't be here on the edge of the world at this gorgeous union of sea, sky, and God's green Earth watching Woods put a bow on a Father's Day present to himself and his family. So what I've decided to do is ask the player's about their favorite moments with their dads or sons and reminisce about some of mine with you.
Do you remember when I was 3 years old? How the access road actually cut through the municipal golf course and mom would wait by the 15th green in that ugly Pinto she drove, just so I could run out onto the green with a pitcher of iced tea for you, Uncle Marcie, Eddie Byrne, and Vinnie Mazzie? I was so happy just to get to stay with you and putt the past four greens and then go get a hot dog with long hot peppers.
I remember Uncle Marcie too. Who could forget?! Talk about quitting golf in spectacular fashion. He walked off the second fairway, crossed Mohawk Street, climbed over the fence that guarded the city reservoir, walked to the water's edge - ignoring everyone's questions of "Marcie? Where are you going?!" - and then threw the entire bag, the ball, and finally, with a flourish, his hat, into the reservoir and never hit another golf ball again as long as he lived! It's still the talk of the club after all these years.
Oh no, there goes that guy again…
"And it's into the hole! And Tiger Woods is into the lead!"
Now we have 13 seconds to look at each other. We know what's coming. Yup…there goes the roar again.
Now you should hear the stony silence in the media center. Let type this out so I have it straight on paper: 66-foot eagle putt, then slam-dunk, birdie pitch-in, then an eagle to close out the round, playing 18 like it was nothing. The lightning crashed and the thunder rolled; the seas boiled and the skies fell. Impressive…most impressive.
One of my colleagues from the magazine just walked by me: an old school guy. I read him as a kid. Another golf writer asked us both, "You ever seen this [expletive deleted] before?" Without missing a beat, both he and I snapped back, "Yes!"
The coverage has been non-stop, every channel, you can't get away. It's so mind-boggling, I couldn't even escape it on "Channel Ocho." You know Channel Ocho - that Mexican sitcom/variety show with the two guys that dress up in bee costumes? They came on TV rubbing their butts and screaming, "Hasta la bustamente andale arriva si! Tiger Woods una patada mis nalgas!" [Holy smokes! Tiger Woods kicked my ass!]
Anyway, the players gave me even more stories than just Watson's. I collected some stories from the players about their favorite moments with their dads. There were some amazing ones…
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.