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A Memorable Open - For the Wrong Reasons!

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Retief Goosen
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Retief Goosen (.)

The U. S. Open had been over for several days, and yet the buzz in the club car of the commuter train still zeroed in on the bizarre final round of the big event. Usually, the chatter is about the ups and downs of Wall Street, and how the morning's headlines would affect the day's market numbers.

"In my book, it was the worst Open ever," one was saying. "A couple of 'nobodies' who can't make two-foot putts. Wow! What a knock for golf."

A fellow by the window didn't agree. "I think it was good for the game. It showed how tough golf really is that even the best player in the world can't win every time he tees it up."

The pros and cons were stirred up immediately, but I was inclined to believe that in the final analysis it probably was a plus for golf. Sure, it was a huge disappointment for those who had hoped to see Tiger Woods stretch his incredible streak of five major championships. And few thought he wouldn't. The odds-makers had him as the even-money favorite, and no one's ever held that lofty spot in an Open before. But in the end, he finished back in the pack, tied for 12th, seven shots behind Retief Goosen, a South African unknown to most golf fans.

Now if the No. 1 player in the world can be beaten rather decisively by the golfer ranked 39th, this makes a strong statement for what it takes to win a major golf championship. Bear in mind that Tiger had planned meticulously for this major. Indeed, he builds his entire yearly schedule around the majors so that his game will peak at the proper level at the right time. For the Open, he had gone to Southern Hills, Oklahoma, a week in advance so that he could tune in properly to the difficult layout. In the end, the Open underscored that fact that even the "best golfer ever," as some call him, cannot take charge of every competition.

Golfers are not robots. This time, not only was Tiger beaten by No. 39, but also by Mark Brooke, No. 194 in the world, who was tied with Goosen at the end of regulation play.

As noted, the loss nipped Woods' string of five straight major titles, but that was only part of the costly setback. It also ended a run of 19 straight rounds in the 60s in the majors; 38 straight rounds of par or better in majors; 38 consecutive rounds of par or better overall; and 40 consecutive events under par. All of which added up to Tiger's running start on his way to rewriting golf's record book.

While there is a touch of sadness to the end of such a brilliant spree, I think this could be a plus for the game. Over recent weeks I have heard more than one ardent golfer cry out: "This Tiger thing is getting pretty monotonous!"

I've had the same thought myself. And that doesn't imply that I minimize Tiger's enormous achievements over these past four years or the impact he's had on the game. But the game is more exciting to watch and follow when there is bonafide competition. Domination by one man provides something considerably less than that.

Of course what contributes heavily to Tiger's monopolization of the golf scene is the manner in which the media focuses on him almost to the exclusion of everyone else. Television is particularly lopsided in its coverage. The cameras follow his every move, and when Woods plays before the start of the event's airtime, they simply show it during the regular coverage, often to the exclusion of more important developments in the tournament.

The media justifies this by pointing to the new following Tiger has brought into the game, especially the exploding TV audience. And they cite, too, the new types of advertisers he has attracted. They seem to be waiting in line, and they all bring M-O-N-E-Y -- which, of course, always is the bottom line.

On the other hand, Woods' flop in the Open didn't turn it into an exciting event. It provided the potential for this by opening the door to the frustrated contenders like Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Sergio Garcia. They responded b y shooting, respectively, 75 74 77 in the final round and not making a serious run at the big prize.

Indeed, it took a couple of older birds and former Open champions to give the audience its biggest kicks. Hale Irwin, 56 and a three-time winner, had the early lead with a first round 67. And 50-year-old Tom Kite really turned it on and came within a stroke of the Open record with a closing 64, good for a tie for fifth.

Over the long period of Tiger's supreme reign, Mickelson, Duval and Garcia have built up large and patient followings. They have been singled out time and again as the most logical challengers to Tiger, and their chances seemed better than usual in the early going when Woods had trouble finding his game. But each seemed to be irritated when the press asked them if they thought their chances were brighter with Woods sitting back in the pack. One simply ignored the question. Perhaps they sensed what was coming.

The left-handed Mickelson, who has strung together a procession of Sunday disasters in his quest for his first major championship, added another. For the sixth time, he came to the final round within two shots of the lead. This time, he had a four-foot birdie putt to trigger his final charge on the 13th. He three-putted for bogey, and his eyes seemed glazed as he walked off the green. Even an earlier hole-in-one hadn't helped.

Garcia, the 20-year-old Spaniard, was only one stroke behind when he started the final round, but his lack of maturity again did him in. Overanxious, he soared to four over at the turn, and finished with a 77. Duval, who once was atop the world rankings, ahead of Tiger, never did get a final charge going and faded to a final 74.

Thus, what had loomed as a potentially wild shootout finish, especially if Tiger could fashion one of his typical closing rallies, never really got started. Instead, we had a lukewarm final that featured three lighter-weight players, Goosen, Brooks and Stewart Cink. No marquee names there. And not many memorable shots either. Until!

Approaching the last two holes, the trio was deadlocked at 5-under. Playing a hole ahead, Brooks three-putted the 18th and fell one shot behind. Figuring he had blown the biggest chance of his career, he headed off to the locker room.

Cink, who had made a clutch birdie putt on the 17th to get back into a tie with Goosen, wasn't as fortunate on the 18th. His chip left him with a 12-footer for par. He missed on the edge, and it rolled past about two feet for bogey. One stroke behind Goosen now, he became careful and, perhaps, too courteous, opting to finish and allow Goosen to make the customary final putt for them to tie. Cink missed again for a double-bogey. That left him two shots back.

The rest seemed like a yawn. Goosen was 12 feet away with the luxury of two shots to win the U. S. Open. And this is when the first real drama of the whole week developed - if only briefly. Goosen missed the first one, and the gallery groaned. He had less than two feet coming back for what should have been the final putt on the 72nd hole for the United States Open Championship. He missed again. Goosen was struck by lightning on a golf course when he was 17, but that jolt surely didn't match the one on the 18th hole.

Brooks was already in the process of clearing out his locker when he was told he was in a Monday playoff with Goosen. And poor Cink, who had hurried to get off the stage for the soon-to-be champion, vowed he'd be more careful the next time.

The Goosen-Brooks playoff was anticlimactic, with both players taking few risks and playing mostly to the center of the green. Goosen was the two-stroke winner, and when he finished he observed: If I hadn't won, I would have been history."

He is already history. Retief Goosen is the first golfer to rebound from a 72nd hole disaster in a major championship and wind up with the trophy. And the list of victims includes such illustrious names as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Greg Norman, among others.

And if that isn't enough history, how about this? What other U.S. Open had its top three finishers take nine putts on the 72nd hole? A memorable Open indeed, even if for the wrong reasons.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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