Despite Phil Mickelson’s status as a warm-up act before the late-afternoon headliners, fans loyal to the perpetually frustrated U.S. Open participant stood by their man Saturday.
But as Mickelson walked down the 16th fairway in that clunky gait of his, he had nothing left in his well to share with the well-wishers behind the ropes. Mickelson wasn’t beaten up, merely beat after Day Three of golf as survival-competition reality show.
Between the USGA’s tradition of converting championship courses into painstakingly designed stress tests, and the Olympic Club’s diabolically contoured fairways, the 112th U.S. Open is an event where bogeys are common, birdies are rare and par is agreeable evidence of straight shooting.
It’s a breathtaking site for a sports event, the weather is remarkably pleasant – more like San Diego than San Francisco – and the daily logistical challenge of putting more than 33,000 fans on the grounds has been as smooth as a seventh-inning stretch.
But a lot of the fun of watching world-class golfers is watching them have fun, and until late Saturday, most of the golfers were not having fun. Most of the golfers were having traumatic flashbacks about the childhood circumstances that inspired them to excel at this cruelest of games.
Tiger Woods on Friday volunteered himself an exception to the trend.
“I think I’m in a good spot,” he said of sharing lead after two rounds, at 1-under par, with Jim Furyk and David Toms.
Woods didn’t bemoan the greens on which downhill birdie putts roll (and roll, and roll) into double bogeys, and he wasn’t critical of the narrow fairways that were mostly keeping his driver in the bag, under cover.
“This is a different tournament,” said Woods. “You have to stay patient, and you’re just playing for pars …
“This tournament,” Woods also said, “you just keep plodding along.”
Just by mentioning the word “plodding,” and strongly suggesting it’s a virtue, Woods makes me feel 30 years older than I am.
Tiger Words plodding on a golf course? It’s like Kevin Durant racing toward a breakaway dunk and then scoring on a routine layup off the glass. It’s like Felix Hernandez throwing pitches to contact, or Marshawn Lynch running out of bounds to avoid contact.
But requiring transcendent talents to plod is consistent with the spirit of the U.S. Open. Before Furyk scored a birdie on No. 11 to go 1-under par Saturday, the tournament leaderboard had gone almost two hours without showing a red number.
The Lake Course is more fair than it was for the 1998 U.S. Open, remembered for the Zamboni-worthy greens and first-round pin placements that mocked Payne Stewart’s attempts to putt. But the ’98 Open wasn’t fun, and the 2012 Open wasn’t fun for two rounds and part of a third, and it’s fair to wonder: Do fans at home enjoy the sight of gifted shot-makers plodding for pars?
“The concept of trying to test the greatest players in the world might not be particularly spectator oriented to some people,” Tommy O’Toole, chairman of the USGA championship committee, said the other day. “But this has long been a brand of the USGA to be golf’s toughest test and require the players to use both mental and physical capabilities.”
USGA president Mike Davis admits golf works better as entertainment when players are able to combine booming drives and a short-game artistry than when players are locked into four days at the Plodders and Grinders convention. But he points out the U.S. Open wouldn’t really be the U.S. Open if half the field were under par.
“I think if fans had to see this 52 weeks of the year, it probably wouldn’t be good,” Davis said. “But to see it once a year, well, at least the feedback we’ve gotten for decades and decades tells us it’s something fans want to see. They want to see a tough test, one week of the year.
“The trick is we want to make it hard, but there needs to be an exiting part of it, too. That really is the trick. I think it’s possible to do both. So what we really strive to do is make it a difficult test, but make it interesting.”
Davis’ formula for an ideal U.S. Open – a competition that challenges the minds and taxes the spirit of the players, while it draws in casual fans for the one event of the year that can be called too difficult – was on display Saturday afternoon.
Only six golfers, out of 156, managed to finish under par on Thursday. Only seven finished under par on Friday. But on Saturday, amid conditions that made for a golf paradise (no wind, moist greens, reasonable pin placements) there were 13 under-par scores from a field of 72.
And though the ranks of those who began the day under par for the tournament actually shrank, from three to two (Furyk and Graeme McDowell, both at 1 under), the prevailing emotion late in the round was one that generated smiles, fist bumps and bear hugs.
“I felt the course played probably the fairest of the last couple of days,” said Ernie Els, who was scuffling at 7-over par after six holes on Saturday. But thanks to an eagle at No. 17, a 502-yard par-5, Els played the last five holes at 5 under. He’s in contention.
“You’ve just got to keep going and hopefully you get good breaks,” Els continued. “It depends on conditions. Today the course was playable. Tomorrow if it’s really firm, you won’t see a score under par.”
That would be a shame. The 13 under-par scores in the third round didn’t compromise the USGA’s history of turning the Open into a no-nonsense test of physical dexterity and mental agility. The 13 under-par scores were a reminder that a test should be as much about the reward for passing as it is about the penalty for firstname.lastname@example.org