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The Rise and Fall of a First-Day Star at the U.S. Open

By: Jay Flemma


Witness now the ebbs and flows of opening day of the U.S. Open, a back nine love affair.

Day One of the U.S. Open is just “getting to know you.” It’s nothing more than a first date. It’s a giggle, a flirt, a flip of blond hair, a flash of a golden-tanned leg, maybe even a torrid kiss or two and promises of more to come. But as David Howell found out, falling in love on the first date is for hopeless romantics. Reality can bite.

There’s no room for careless, flighty love or the milk of human kindness at the U.S. Open. Howell joins a long list of first-day stars who rose quickly, then fell back to Earth with a sudden jolt.

Ever heard of George Burns? No, not the cigar-chomping comedian, the journeyman golfer who torched the front nine at Pebble Beach on Day One in 1982. He was six-under after seven holes and had everyone leafing through the media guide’s player bios. But like many others before and since, Burns crashed a few holes later.

Spunky Morgan Pressel was five-under on her front nine at Cherry Hills during the first day of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open. But the teenager finished even-par, giving back just enough shots to lose a cushion that might otherwise have been enough to foil Birdie Kim’s miracle bunker shot.

At 3:30 p.m. yesterday, with Bo Van Pelt at minus-one and tied for the lead with Colin Montgomerie, there were few people following Howell, Van Pelt and Geoff Ogilvy. Then the whole group got into The Zone.

“They were picking each other up” said Carrie Van Pelt, Bo’s wife who was walking the course despite looking as though she might give birth to the couple’s unborn son Crew at any moment. “They are scrambling and hitting good shots all together.”

Picking each other up is a strange phenomenon. Sometimes golfers play to the level of their competition. Both Michael Campbell and Tiger Woods struggled horribly at Winged Foot yesterday, combining for an aggregate 12-over par. But as Carrie and her mom watched, surrounded by just a few family and friends, the flirting blond that is Day One at the Open started to tease.

Yes, this siren is alluring, exotic, the kind of woman a man meets once or twice in a lifetime – if he meets her at all. She’s no artificial passing beauty, no Jessica Simpson, no Paris Hilton.

The Open doesn’t wear makeup, flip-flops or hoopskirts.

No, the Open’s beauty is timeless, ageless; deep-bright sparkling-blue eyes; a full bloom on her lips; long thin legs; demure cheeks; long and fiery red hair.

She started teasing Howell as he had her all to himself.

A drained 30-footer here, a scrambling par there, two more long birdie putts and the next thing you know, the small crowd of following the threesome was being elbowed out of the way by TV cameras and New Yorkers.

Still, the trio carried on. They played in stony silence – even the three let each man walk alone. The trio didn’t even talk to each other as the back nine unfolded. It was like how a baseball team leaves the no-hitter-throwing pitcher all by himself to stew in his juices at the end of the bench.

Even as Howell made his back-to-back birdies on the front side, the crowd was tiny and quiet. The occasional clap sputtered from the small crowd, enough people to muster one table-full of gallery members for a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

But then, just as things started to get interesting, the crowd swelled to follow the leader. Then the girl turned her head away – even as her suitor was doing and saying everything right.

For goodness sakes, Howell was four-under par, on track to a sterling 66, and poised to make love to her with his golf clubs.

Standing on the tee of the par-4 15th with a 2-iron in his hands for what Howell later called “one of the easiest shots I had all day,” he pushed it in the rough.

From there, Howell played safe again. Hey, if the girl is angry, some flowers and candy usually does the trick. So, instead of forcing the issue and risking sinking one into a creek, Davis asked for his wedge, laid up to 100 yards and tried so save par the smart way. He bogeyed, but that’s OK. It could have been worse. Minus-3 is still one hot first date.

Howell smoked his Cleveland Hy-bore of the tee at the brutal 487-yard 17th. A perfect shot to the exact right third of the fairway. But his 6-iron went ONE FOOT over the green, in rough that veiled the tops of his shoes.

Soothe the girl’s feelings, make her laugh, make her comfortable. Look in her eyes and make her laugh again. He nestled his chip to within two feet.

Then came another frustrating miss. The green was now ringed with spectators. After his putt failed to drop, Howell flashed a pained expression and looked down the fairway for a microsecond.

That was the one place on the hole where, when he looked away, there were no fans. He tried to compose himself, but missed two-footers aren’t good for making eye contact with the gallery.

A mere few moments ago he had the girl all to himself. Now, he was only one shot clear of the field, and more suitors were talking to the vixen.

When the dust on 18 cleared and Howell’s final double-bogey dropped him a shot behind Montgomerie (Van Pelt finished with a 72 and Ogilvy 71), you could sense the frustration in his eyes and clipped speech. The girl decided on someone else. “With the last holes, I’m really frustrated and I’m fed up” he lamented. “If the greens get firmer, this course is just going to get harder and harder.”

He had the girl . . . all to himself. And now he didn’t have her at all.

Once again at the Open, a more experienced, phlegmatic player survived. “I think the expectation was lower this particular year or the last few years and it does make a difference because you are more relaxed,” Montgomerie intoned.

One stroke off the lead along with crowd favorite Phil Mickelson, Furyk added, “today is nothing more than a good start and something to build on.”

The U.S. Open is a tough first date. She is flighty, flirtatious and certainly not monogamous. It’s a long tortuous courtship – full of breathless love, hot passion, bitter disappointment and other lovers waiting ruthlessly to take her away. Men would gladly dash themselves upon the rocks for her. But the Open is the girl who has no qualms whatsoever about going home as someone else’s date.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.blogspot.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 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.