It's Open time
The U.S. Open begins this Thursday at the Bethpage Black Golf Course on Long Island and Tiger Woods' defense of his title will not be the only reason to watch. There will also be Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia on hand to amp up the interest. Of course there could be any number of compelling story lines develop during the 109th edition of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, but these three names provide plenty of interest for starters.
Naturally Woods' name comes to the fore. It is Woods who is the defending champion one year after defeating Rocco Mediate in a dramatic playoff at Torrey Pines. It was a dramatic playoff in many ways.
U.S. Open playoffs are 18 hole tiebreakers, not the sudden death kind you see on a weekly basis during PGA Tour events. Generally, these 18 hole playoffs turn into yawners. Not last year when Woods needed 19 holes to close out the journeyman Mediate, a fan favorite.
Of course anyone with even a modest interest in golf remembers it was this event where Woods played his last tournament in 2008 due to an ailing left knee. In obvious pain on many shots, Woods played through it to claim his 14th major championship. Two days later Woods had surgery on his knee which kept him off the tour for eight months.
Woods' return has not been spectacular, at least by his standards, but he does have a pair of wins. Actually his numbers have been fine, but at times he has struggled to find fairways from the tee and his putting has not been what we have come to expect. Based on his performance two weeks ago at The Memorial Tournament, Woods seems to be dialing himself in.
At Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village course Woods slumped with his putter early in the event, but he found his game from the tee. He found the fairway 49 times in 56 tries. It all came together in the final round where Woods hit all 14 fairways, made putts, shot 65 and overcame a four shot deficit to win the event for the fourth time. His performance prompted Nicklaus to say, "If he plays like that, he will win the Open."
No disrespect Jack, but if the sun comes up it will be daylight. A classic understatement, indeed. Finding the fairway at a U.S. Open is critical and if the best player on the planet is doing it, everyone else is a long shot.
A fan favorite in New York is Mickelson. Even though he lost to Woods at Bethpage in 2002, Mickelson was a favorite of the gallery and having the crowd behind you in New York can't be underestimated. Expect the galleries at Bethpage to really rally behind the left hander this year.
Last month Mickelson's wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Phil's immediate response was to withdraw from the tour, but has since decided to come back to play in the U.S. Open. His tune-up in Memphis last week was lackluster, and his game may not be ready for the conditions he will face this week, but sentiment will be with him, and if he makes a run at the championship look out.
At the other end of the spectrum is Garcia. It was Garcia's reaction to the galleries at Bethpage in 2002 which transformed the Spaniard from a swashbuckling young star to something of a villain. Garcia was a budding star after his performance as a 19 year old at Medinah in the 1999 U.S. Open. In the eyes of many he has yet to recover that perception, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Many will recall the time when Garcia picked up the annoying practice of massaging, or milking, or regripping his club during his pre shot routine. Well, leave it to the New Yorkers to not allow that practice to go unchallenged. They began counting, aloud, in English and Spanish, the number of times Garcia would regrip his club. By Friday Garcia had come to a point where his reaction to the gallery's chant was to give them the finger.
Bad move for sure. Even though Garcia broke the nervous habit a few months later that reaction has followed him since. Even that same day he made comments to the media suggesting that he had to play in a downpour, but had Tiger Woods been on the course play would have been suspended. That comment rankled a few people in the USGA as well as Woods.
Thing is, Garcia has done little to repair his image since then. He will be forever regretting spitting into a cup after missing a putt. His public comments typically blame the condition of the courses he plays, or the luck of his competitors, for his close losses. Got to give Garcia some credit for even going back. Should be interesting. New Yorkers won't forget.