It was not a golf tournament, it was a whaling expedition. For the bulk of three days we simply watched a pitiless June rain piss on 156 brave and understandably cheerless mariners as they slogged through a fascistic, endlessly recycling weather apparatus. With clockwork efficiency, the precipitation seemed to know just when to commence in order to wash away every real moment of drama and momentum from the proceedings. Memorable storylines threatened to manifest themselves right up until the very conclusion, but none ever really did. Sad to say, the much-hyped US Open 2009 at Bethpage was a literal and metaphorical washout. Some reflections on major principles, and what might have been.
Although he played, by and large, exceptionally well from tee to green, Woods never really recovered from his first-day 74, in which he played the last four holes in four over par. But he never quit, continuing to play every shot as though engaged in a one-hole playoff for the very fate of mankind. This unwavering commitment to seeing every tournament through is one of the most undersold aspects of Woods’ greatness. Golfers just don’t fight this hard when they are 13 shots off the lead.
For evidence of this fact, look no further then Woods’s playing partner for the first two rounds, the Irishman Padraig Harrington. Harrington is a near-great golfer (and by all accounts a good guy) who at one point at the end of last year had won three of six majors. However, waterlogged, frustrated, and fighting both his swing and a seemingly insurmountable deficit, Harrington did what pro golfers do: he mailed in his final nine, missed the cut by a mile and flew home to get ready for the British Open. It’s not a capital crime, and arguably it’s even the smart play. But in this context it served to cast into even more bold relief Woods’ seemingly metabolic inability to believe he’s ever actually been beaten. In the end Tiger never solved the deluged greens. Had he made even half of the makeable putts he missed, he’d have won the tournament going away. In spite of it, there remains the palpable sense that he was still the greatest force of nature at Bethpage — except, of course, for nature itself.
So there is a Lucas Glover now? I did not know that. I am an avid PGA watcher, and will be the first to tell you that up until 72 hours ago I thought that Lucas Glover was once the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Casper Weinberger. Or something. Certainly I had not prefigured him as a serious contender for the US Open title. But win it he did. To his credit, the world’s 72nd ranked player outdueled some of most storied players in the game, and also another guy who I wasn’t aware played golf.
That is the thing about professional golf, for better or worse: that sometimes an absolutely anonymous and pedestrian-seeming individual triumphs in a major championship. And then, in most cases, they fade directly back into obscurity. There have been countless examples in recent memory: Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Rich Beem. All have all won majors and then evaporated into the ether like a confusing dream. This really doesn’t happen in other major sports. The Toronto Argonauts, or, say, a semi-pro team from Twin Falls, Idaho NEVER win the Super Bowl. A D-League or AA Team never somehow pulls off a miracle run to the NBA or World Series championships. In golf, we get this. It’s weird, but it happens.
The week’s emotional pulse famously centered on the perennial US Open also-ran Phil Mickelson, playing in the sad wake of his wife’s diagnosis with breast cancer. If the 2009 US Open was a whaling expedition, then Mickelson was its Ahab: an aging, scattered and slightly batty stalwart seeking the chimerical title which has long eluded him, while performing in a justifiably fraught state of mind.
Always a fan favorite, Mickelson competed amidst an overwhelming tide of sentiment from his galleries as well as the cheerful hopes of NBC’s announcing crew (presumably a display of genuine sympathy in addition to the desire for a ratings-inflating human interest story). The cameras followed Lefty’s every movement meticulously, even obsessively. We watched as he patiently glad handed passers-by and was praised as the “Arnold Palmer of his generation,” a tireless and fan-friendly ambassador to the game of golf.
Given the distractions, it was difficult to know how Mickelson would perform. And perhaps it is ultimately comforting to discover that he performed like he always does: with a dazzling array of astonishing, wizardly-shot making, befuddling strategy, and ill-timed driving and putting misadventures. Mickelson’s uniquely bi-polar game may well one day interest researchers in the field of psychiatry. Why a player so imminently capable of making consistent pars elects to dot his hieroglyphic scorecard with eagles, birdies, bogies and double bogeys seems a veritable case study in the absence of impulse control. As do the brown and white pinstripe pants he wore on Monday.
He has now finished 2nd in this tournament a record five times, and in achieving this feat, has had to take some strange measures over time in order not to win. Some of the things he’s done might cause the Doctors Freud and Jung to wonder if Mickelson does not, ultimately, feel more comfortable finishing second.
Certainly, going into the last four holes, tied for the lead against relative nobodies, Mickelson seemed to have the title well in hand. Entering into the 15th hole, the acerbic and self-aggrandizing, but inarguably expert commentator Johnny Miller remarked, “I think if Mickelson somehow pars this hole, he is the US Open champion.” Miller’s calculation seemed right, but Mickelson promptly made an ill-judged bogey. Again, on 17, a bad miss on a short par save dropped him back another stroke, to the groans of his devoted cheering section. From his expression, Mickelson knew he had just handed the tournament to a far lesser player, and not for the first time.
But Mickelson was still the best thing about the week that wasn’t. He seems, at times, more Action Painter then golfer. And lonely, heartsick and sequestered on Jackson Pollock’s island, his artful failure provided a modicum of catharsis, in what was otherwise a Weather Channel program posing as sports: Golfus Interruptus.