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Fathers and Sons and the U.S. Open
Editor's Note: Jay wrote this piece in real time, while watching the U.S. Open last weekend. Over the course of the piece there are references to events as they happened.
Happy Father's Day. It's Saturday at the U.S. Open and, same as always, I'm excited for the tournament, but sad because you're not here. This event is always such a singular experience that I yearn to share it with you: to see your bright 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, and wish you were here.
I was chatting with Rand Jerris yesterday. You'll know him as the man who moderates the interviews with the golfers after they finish playing their rounds, then he calls on the reporters to ask questions. Rand lamented the same thing: he never gets to see his kids on Father's Day. He has three: Noah, Hope, and Ben. Noah is old enough to appreciate the tournament next year, so Rand told me he's going to try to have his dad bring Noah to Bethpage. It did make me feel better to know I'm not alone in missing my family on the holiday.
Conversely, the nice thing about the tournament ending on Father's Day is that it makes a special memory for some family; one golfer will never forget that Father's Day as long as he lives and he'll have a story for his dad or son that'll live forever in golf. That gave me the idea of asking the players to tell me some stories about their dads or their sons. I got some good stories and hey, there's a darn good tournament going on so I hope that through me, you'll hear some good stories, and get a bird's eye view of the tournament. Besides, you can print this out, and every time you read it, you can think of you and I and Father's Day, and how much I love you, so here goes.
It's been a much better tournament than I expected. Then again, the U.S. Open always is. Remember my first Open, at Pinehurst? I was so excited, just agog with nervous anticipation for covering my first big tournament ever, and it exceeded my expectations 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 10 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. 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 IDIOT!" A lot of people felt that way, including Phil himself, but that's a bit unfair. After all, Winged Foot is ruthless, even more so than Oakmont.
Sure, Oakmont was hard, but it was also 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, something we learn something new from every time we examine it. Something we cherish. If ever there was a course that materializes from the mists of history, then spellbinds us with an exotic bouquet for one magical week, then vanishes mysteriously to hibernate and await a re-emergence, it's Oakmont. By the way, it looked so much better with the trees gone: like an emerald-green ski slope, a grassy Whiteface Mountain, an iridescent gem radiating light in all its vibrancy and purity.
But Torrey has surprised me at several turns. There's better golf architecture out there than people think and the 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 writers anticipated and without being tricked up. We were calling it Borey Pines and Snorey Pines, but with the excitement of this week, it's been Glory Pines instead.
Moreover, everyone is impressed with how fair the set-up has been. I'd still rather play Bethpage Black, though: it's only fifteen minutes away from me, it's considerably cheaper, tougher, and it's a more interesting design. Stem to stern, the Black is a stronger course. 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; there's great horizontal movement to the fairways, creating diagonal angles of attack. Bethpage has better greens as well. But, hey, Torrey's one hell of a muni and Rees's work did make her better than before, even though the green contours could be better.
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's too many. The course bottlenecks in several crucial places, like entrances and exits, due to the deep canyon that bisects the property. Then I went into the merch tent and thought I'd never get out again. They set it up like a maze to keep you inside so you'll pay through the nose for gear, but I chose frugally. I bought a couple pins, a hat, and something for my best girl in New York. They have these U.S. Open at Torrey Pines 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 later, when going for an iced coffee, I ran head first into a marauding horde of philistines following the 1-2-3 pairing of Woods, Phil, and Adam Scott, and almost didn't escape. I have to criticize the U.S.G.A. for that. Combine Phil's gallery with Tiger's gallery and try to have them all walk down intersecting dark alleys at the same time. One word comes to mind: Moooooooooooooooooooo! Besides, I liked the old way of British Open-U.S. Open-Masters Champion better. It was more dignified than this made-for-TV and the patrons comfort-be-damned walking menagerie.
I see why they did it. The U.S. Open is like a good soup: it needs to simmer a bit and cook for the flavors to blend. It always takes a while for the excitement of the tournament to build. The buzz every year is "Tiger-Phil," and every year it's been wrong. So this year, they manufactured Tiger-Phil at the course they both sort of call home and manufactured a day one and day two story line besides "the cut.". I say let the tournament unfold like a good book. They haven't needed any contrived pairings to get high drama the last few years, that's for sure. With the exception of Chicago in 2003, pound-for-pound, the Open has been more exciting than any other major, a few masterpieces like the 2004 Masters aside.
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 astutely 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.
It's had another unintended effect though. Driving accuracy and greens in regulation are down. They usually hover around 65% and 57% for the entire field in the average U.S. Open, but that's the average of the top ten after two rounds this year. (Gone are the days of David Graham at Merion where he hit all eighteen 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 since when is it 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 twenty-five putts today despite hitting only 6 of14 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 SEVENTEEN FROM THE POULADINI (Italian for "spinach patch"), AROUND THE GREEN! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Did you see that?!? I was in the Media Center typing this to you when bedlam erupted. 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 TVs in the center, two 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 eighteen. They just changed the scoreboard.
He's gonna be in the last group, and he's tied for the lead with the birdie-able 18th ahead. 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 eighteen. 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 three years old? How the access road actually cut through the municipal golf course and mom would wait by the fifteenth 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 thirteen 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 eighteen 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 rest of today was wonderful. I went to dinner with a gaggle of golf writers I like and respect. They've been kind enough to take me under their wing and show me the ropes. In return, I write my stories and they like them. I see what I want to grow into as a golf writer in them, just like I'm proud to have grown into the man you made me, dad. They remind me of you, dignity, grace, and class all the way.
We all went out for Italian at Villa Capri: two paesans, (Marino and I), the tallest potato you ever met, (John calls himself that) and I dunno what Mikey is, but he's funny. Between us we ate the place dry of bread and Bolognese sauce. I had Arrabiata (for you scoring at home that's "angry sauce," named for the red pepper which spices it), and nearly burned off somebody's tongue offering them a taste, but I loved it. We had hoped to go with three fine lads from Ireland, but Padraig Harrington fell off the leaderboard with a resounding thud, so they had to work till midnight. Then I went back to the hotel.
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, I fell asleep trying to write and now it's Sunday…Championship Sunday, supposedly coronation day, but between that double-bogey bogey start for Woods, either Rocco or Westwood may be typing some script revisions to Act IV. That can wait, for Fathers Day, I collected these stories of the tour players and their dads, several of them were really touching.
One of my favorite stories was from big-hitting Bubba Watson. "I was 6 years old and, for the first time in my life, dad gave me a club. He gave me a broken down left-handed 9-iron and we went out to play. I had so much fun and when I looked at him, I could see had even more fun watching me. He was smiling so much, it was like I hit a hole-in-one every shot."
That's how I feel about you. Having you for a dad is like getting a hole-in-one every day.
You had to know Boo Weekley would give me great copy. He smiled warmly at me in the locker room as if to say, "pull up a chair, boy" and then grinned that big ol' smile before spinnin' me a yarn. "I member playin' wi' mah dad the day I broke par for the first tahm. I had a ten-footer for a 69. My knees were knockin' and it was scarier than a swamp snake!" he exclaimed, hands gesticulating, elbows flying and hands slapping his knee as his grin grew broader. "It twirled around the cup and fell in and he was smilin' and we made us some money!"
I dined out on that story a couple times this week.
Todd Hamilton's always friendly. You remember him? He plays like me, punch shots and stingers and one-hops and short game. He conquered Royal Troon back in 2004, narrowly beating Ernie Els in a playoff. "I was getting ready for the Illinois H.S. State Championships and it was also my birthday" he explained. "To help me prepare, Dad set up a match where he'd give me $5 for every hole on which I beat him, but I didn't have to pay him $5 if I lost a hole." He brightened and continued. "I won $40, which to a 14-year old back then was like $2,000."
Rod Pampling had a similar one, "The first time I beat my dad, he wasn't happy, he had to buy me a new set of clubs!" he laughed.
Then there were the stories that surprised me. I didn't know Lee Westwood's dad learned the game at the same time Lee did.
"My dad and I started playing golf at the same time" said Westwood, (whose valiant performance at the Open this week left him one shot shy of the playoff). "We both made the first birdies of our lives on the same hole. How about that for a story? It was at a muni in England called Kilton Forest. He made his putt first and then I followed it right up with one of my own. We were thrilled."
Stew Cink was next. "I wasn't old enough to play my dad's home course, so he and I would sneak onto the country club on Mondays. It felt so good just having that time with him, especially since he was breaking the rules for me. I was so excited."
Cink walked into the clubhouse while telling me this story this morning and Jim Furyk walked me right back out to the practice area. He also started a little trend. He triggering a run of stories by the guys about the first time they beat their dads. "Every kid remembers the first time they beat their dad" he said confidently. "Mine was at Conestoga Country Club, where they made the famous covered wagons."
When I asked where Conestoga was, he looked at me sideways. Being a history major at a great school, he seemed to think "you oughta know that." I promised him I'd go read up on Conestoga and the Old Wagon Trail and I'm glad I did. It's always great to talk to Furyk, you get great answers and you learn stuff too.
Kevin Streeland, the journeyman pro who led after round one was next. "I beat my dad for the first time at Old Wayne GC in West Chicago Ill. I was so excited because I look up to my dad so much, it meant more than just winning a game to beat him. I was growing into him. He's class and dignity all the way - beyond anybody I've ever met. He's a role model and I'm proud to be just like him."
Zach Johnson was right behind him with wonderful, glowing praise for his dad. Isn't it fitting And inspiring that the homespun kid from Iowa is so eloquent and humble. "I don't remember the first time I beat dad, but I remember all our great golf vacations form when I was young, like Hilton Head. And every weekend on Saturday and Sunday, he and I and would play eighteen both days."
Sound familiar, dad? That';s another mantra I learned from you, "when it comes to golf, the family that plays together, stays together." Anyway, Zach continued, "My father is such a loving man. He's a family guy through and through, he also loves people, everybody. He'll shake everyone's hand and share stories with them."
Just like you dad, everyone, loves you because you treat them the same, whether they are beggar or king, mayor or dog catcher. You're humble, you don't have any airs or presumptions. You're the same man handing down decisions from the court bench as you were falling in the pond at the fourth hole of Crestwood trying to fish out Vinnie Mazzie's golf ball with that ridiculous 40-foot retriever. The same man who told the world at his retirement party, "Pleae don't make me retire. Why do I want to retire? It's half the money and twice the wife." You're humble and human, and you see the good in everybody all the time.
It's not hard to see the good in Ben Curtis. He's such an affable guy, I seek him out for interviews just for the added benefit of chatting with such a likeable person for a few minutes. He echoed Zach sentiments of dignity, grace, and class. He was so respectful, almost reverent of his pops. You know that expression, "if there's two things people hate, it's a dirty old man and a clean little boy?" Well Benji and Zach are two exceptions. They make being a role model look easy.
You do that too, dad. When it comes to being a good man, a man who stood up for what was right, no son ever had a better father, not Nicklaus or Woods, not Hogan or Jones. Here's why:
There are eight great virtues in life: courage, loyalty, wisdom, honor, fortitude, temperance, justice, and compassion. You have all eight. You fight for what's right, even if you don't benefit from it. You'll stick up for your family and friends no matter how tough their situation. You always take your time to do the right thing, the wise, the altruistic thing, the sensible, non-confrontational thing. You never give up. You stay calm in the toughest situations.
I know how hard that was for you. I remember you stuck that note “calma” in front of you on the bench to prove the naysayers wrong when you got elected and they all said you treated everyone well and without being rash or personal.
Justice? Ha! You’re a paragon of that. The gold standard for a judge. Of course, your noble, but imperfect heart is big enough for ten people. Your example is the glue that holds my rickety life together. If I’m half the man you are, then I’m twice the man the world could ever ask me to be. Having you for a father, being proud of your grace, class, dignity, and humility is better than any Green Jacket, Claret Jug, or silver encrusted trophy; my love, never fade or grow threadbare, a trophy that will never tarnish. I may never be able to pay you back, but I sure can pay your kindness forward.
I’ll tell you one last story. My friend Ed Ellis had a great one. His dad, Elon Ellis, Vice President of the Western Golf Association and the overseer of the Evans Scholarship Fund won a trip to St. Andrews. He got a hole in one, and this was back in the days when Golf Digest had their annual contest where you sent in your name and they drew one person each year for a trip. We won and it was the day and trip of a lifetime – The Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, Troon, and Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, Turnberry, and Ballybunion, and Royal Wimbledon. I’d love to take one more trip with you and mom. I now cherish every round I get to play with you.
There were two times I almost lost you and never got the privilege again. We were lucky with your two heart attacks. I think God kept you down here because he needs you to fight for the rights of those children in family Court, a court of misery and tears. I always remember my favorite round with you. It was our first round together after your quadruple bypass and I was so grateful, so elated to even get one more round in with you, I could do no wrong.
Remember? I shot 78. You were doing your typical gamesmanship stuff in the beginning, things like standing two inches away form me when I was hitting, but I didn’t get flustered. When I hit the fourth green and made birdie, you started rooting for me, pulling for me as though I were playing in the U.S. Open. I just rode you. Seeing you alive and well and back playing golf with the old gang at the course I grew up on lifted my up on the wings of an archangel. You’re still my hero dad, and everything I aspire to be. I’m so glad you know that. It’s the greatest peace of mind knowing that the greatest man I know is proud of the man I became – you.
Anyway, I better wrap this up. Deadline is approaching and we may have a p#$@*&f. I can’t say or even type the word, it’s bad luck. I won the lottery to play Torrey tomorrow, but if there’s a p#$@*&f, that’s off.
It’s strange but I heard two people talk about this taboo subject in the tent or during the event. That’s the ultimate party foul around here. Nobody wants Monday golf, so saying the word “p#$@*&f” during the event is deemed to be a curse. You don’t risk it because you get the Scarlet Letter for the rest of the week. It’s like you don’t say “MacB%$#” in a theatre, well you don’t say “p#$@*&f” during Our Open.
Well on Saturday, a local entertainment reporter got on the bus and said “I hope it goes into overtime!” [Good lord! Overtime?!] The rest of the bus snarled at her viciously and a vigorous exchange of discourtesies ensued. If they had tomatoes, lettuce, and eggs, they’d have made a nice salad out of her.
Then one of the guys from my magazine actually said the dreaded word to me this morning. I jumped and cringed as though he suddenly broke out in a viscid chicken pox. You just don’t tempt fate.
On another mote though, a p#$@*&f would allow Torrey and this Open to really reach hallowed status. It needs a historic occurrence, and a virtuoso performance by Woods qualifies.
So until I see you, happy Fathers Day. And again, dad. One more time, with feeling, a thousand times happy Fathers Day. Even tough you’re not here, you’re in my mind and heart. With that for inspiration, I can move the world.
Well, I gotta go. That guy is yelling again.
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.