LA JOLLA, Calif. - The shot dropped like a thunderbolt from the sky, drawing a quick gasp of surprise, then a monstrous roar, for a player most of the people yelling had never heard of. A tap-in eagle can do that.
Dustin Johnson didn't sprint up all the way past the pond to the green to knock in that gimmie putt, but he came close. You've never seen a home run hitter in Major League Baseball move this quick.
Call it the 18th boogie woogie, a move that's been missing from majors for years. As golf's governing bodies took on a sadistic glint, trying to transform their big events into a multi-millionaire's version of Abu Ghraib, much of the joy's been drained away. It's being breathed back in at Torrey Pines South, though, thanks to a go-for-it par 5 finisher that's as welcome a resuscitator as Scarlett Johansson would be if you came up grasping for air at the beach.
Johnson's bolt came in the middle of an otherwise largely nondescript round from a mostly nondescript player on late Friday afternoon. And still, if you were there, you couldn't help but feel goosebumps.
Imagine what it would be like if a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson, or heck even a Camillo Villegas, had to go for eagle to try and win the 108th U.S. Open or force a playoff late Sunday. It'd be the stuff of instant legend, and, more importantly, give golf the kind of water-cooler buzz it so seldom produces.
"Eighteen," Ernie Els said, with his eyes, which have seen it all, lighting up. "That's real golf. Not what they have us playing a lot of times in this event."
Of course, it helps that Els birdied it to close his second round and get back to par, a figure that's more psychologically important to a U.S. Open golfer than Mother was to Tony Soprano or Anthony Perkins' "Psycho."
The United State Golf Association has done a lot of things right in this Torrey Open, beginning with losing the obsession over making the course conditions the center of everything and letting the players be the stars. But it should take the next step and make sure 18 plays from its shorter tee, the one that allows eagles and prompts mistakes on Sunday.
It played at 535 yards in the second round (it can be pushed up as long as 573 yards with the USGA's multiple tees) and quickly turned into the most exciting spot on the golf course.
It transformed Johnson - a PGA Tour rookie who can dunk a basketball - into a monster man. It drove Geoff Ogilvy absolutely batty, causing him to plead his case to a rules official like a drunken chick who thinks she can talk a cop out of anything. It even made Tiger Woods go Zach Johnson.
Yes, just before he went on his birdie binge on the front nine (his second nine) that turned Torrey Pines into a wave of rolling roars reminiscent of Augusta back when birdies were still allowed to decide who gets to Butler Cabin, Tiger laid up on 18.
He didn't have much of choice with the lie that his drive found, but seeing the greatest golfer in history purposely hit a little dinky shot short of the pond still grew surprised shrieks from the hole's grandstand of people packed rib-to-rib.
Tiger made a 5, the same score he recorded on Friday when he hit arguably the drive of the tournament (Adam Scott estimated it at 360 and wasn't far off), got on in two and three-putted.
That's 18 at its inviting, invigorating, confounding, complex best. The little pond in front of the raised ridge green really shouldn't bother the best golfers in the world. It's just a tiny waif of a water hazard, something a 20-handicapper could clear pretty consistently in a Saturday afternoon round.
It shouldn't inflict havoc. But it does.
Colin Montgomerie - the cantankerous Scot who sometimes refuses to accept he's 44 - tried to man up on 18. He ended up with a sickening plop. And Montgomerie was no anomaly. A marshal reported seeing five water balls in less than three hours from his post on 18.
You want to be a stud? You have to chance the laugh-track price. That's golf at its best, the risk-reward decisions that us average golfers get to make almost every round, but the best players are often denied.
When Johnson got to the 18th green, far ahead of his not-so-speed-strolling, inspired playing partners, he heard the loudest cheer he's ever heard as a pro. The 6-foot-4 24-year-old can bomb the ball, and he did off the tee. His second shot dropped even better, coming down with a thud within 3 inches of the cup, making thousands of people look at their tee sheets to find a name.
It's good to be a macho man for however brief the moment. The satisfaction that a two-shot 18 can bring lasts much longer. Johnson's eagle 3 turned a bad round into a decent one, all thanks to one hole.
Then, you have those with dreams sinking into that little swallow pond. Woody Austrin tried to be bold to finish his Friday and turned into Aquaman - in a much more conventional sense. And somehow still saved par.
"Eighteen is playing as easy as can be," said Woods, the man without a birdie or an eagle there.
Ogilvy might raise a finger in objection. His safe layup on 18 landed up against the hill on the edge of the green, burrowed as tight as a mole.
Okay, so maybe the world's No. 1 is sending a message to the USGA. They shouldn't listen though - because of something else Tiger admitted.
"It's really loud on 18," he said. "It echoes. People are excited; they're definitely jazzed today."
Isn't that what golf should be all about? Such possible agony and ecstasy wrapped up in one, single hole.
Why can't we make that mandatory in the Rules of Golf?
June 14, 2008
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Davis Love III, who played the final 57 holes of the Children's Miracle Network Classic without a bogey, finished at 25-under 263 in the season-ending event played at the Walt Disney World Golf Resort in Florida. It has been a long road back for Love, who severely sprained his ankle late last year. After tearing ligaments, he needed surgery, and he's spent much of this year rehabilitating the injury.
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