I felt like I should have played. Not Chambers Bay.
Friday at the U.S. Open I was lucky enough to score a coveted, inside-the-ropes credential -- there were only 50 of them issued among thousands of worldwide media members. In that second round I walked with Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler, three days after walking with Woods and eventual champion Jordan Spieth. That was the Tuesday Woods howled over the 21-year-old Spieth not knowing who Bob Barker was. Then on Friday I saw Fowler steal away from from the course for a couple minutes at the turn between the front and back nines to get a kiss and embrace from his girlfriend on the sly near the caddie shack. Even that didn't help Fowler, who exited the tournament quickly that afternoon with the even-more-errant Woods. Together, they finished plus-30.
Then Saturday, I got the magic yellow lanyard again (thanks TNT sports editor Darrin Beene) to follow Jason Day. The 27-year-old Australian had collapsed from vertigo the day before on the course, and he looked bad while on the practice tee trying to give round three a go.
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I could tell from the three minutes he spent squatting at his bag with his caddie, Colin Swatton, standing over him on the practice range. I could tell Day’s third round was going to be unlike any round for anybody in the U.S. Open’s recent history.
I had one of the coveted, inside-the-ropes passes only 50 members of the media had, among the thousands worldwide that came to Chambers Bay to cover our national golf championship. It was startling – and disheartening – to see so many of the stories written and told on our 115th U.S. Open came from those who never left the giant, air-conditioned media tent with his huge-screen television images and instantaneous scoring.
If ever there was a championship for which color and context from the scene were a must, this was it: Four days of going up, down and all around Chambers Bay’s dusty, danger-filled dunes and fescue fields.
And if there was ever a player to watch up close on Saturday, it was Day.
My neon-yellow lanyard offered a perspective few got of the 27-year-old from Australia. He had collapsed the day before from vertigo at the final hole of his second round. He was still dizzy and unsure for the third. I wondered before its start: Not only if would finish, but how?
As Day and his accompanying cadre made the long walk up the green steps and bridge connecting holes one and two, he clutched the handrail. He was drugged and delicate, hardly the condition to compete in one of golf’s majors.
Atop the long climb to the seventh green I saw Day approach his caddie to tell him he was exhausted. Swatton put his hand on Day and asked him to take each hole, each shot, one at a time. Before he teed off at 8 Day took a long drink of pink liquid Swatton had handed him inside a water bottle.
He visibly revived over the next few holes, and he got two birdies. By 15 he had birdied again, and suddenly he was vying for the lead. But his dizziness had returned. He bent at the waist and almost fell down on the 16th tee – and still hit his drive almost 320 yards. Dizzy and defying, he somehow birdied five of the final nine holes. I knew by the roar of the grandstand on 17 our U.S. Open had found its man. And when the People’s Choice banged his tee shot on 18 way right off a hospitality tent’s deck, a sliding-glass door and back to the edge of the fairway on his way to tying for the lead entering Sunday, I knew this was indeed Jason’s day.
As if that wasn't enough, on Sunday I got the inside-the-ropes access one more time, to follow Day and Dustin Johnson, co-leaders and the last pairing to tee off for the final round. That turned out to be an OK decision. I got to see up close for five hours in the sun and the tension, Day feel better by fade and Johnson surge to a three-stroke lead halfway through the round. The 30-year-old South Carolinan's drives were mammoth. His demeanor was stoic. He barely talked. He just kept crushing the ball.
Then, three three-putts on holes 10, 11 and 12. His three-shot lead, gone faster than shade at one-tree Chambers.
But then you know what happened: Spieth faltered on 17, Johnson surged again, and they were tied entering the final hole.
That's when this happened.
I've been fortunate to cover many top championship events -- the Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series, Rose Bowls, BCS title games, NCAA basketball tournaments -- but none of those was better run than what the USGA did with the U.S. Open. And I appreciate being able to view in person in the span of four months two of the most dramatic and crushing endings to a championship in sports history.
I know, don't remind you of the other one.