2006: Sunday hurrahs, Monday blahs

Newport, R.I.

So how good was Sunday at the U.S. Women’s Open? This good:

The world’s No. 1 player, Annika Sorenstam, was in the middle of the mix. So was two-time U.S. Open champion Juli Inkster. And unheralded Pat Hurst. And the winner of the last major, Se Ri Pak. As well as Paula Creamer, trying to secure her first major triumph. And a couple of top-notch amateurs were making some noise, too, as amateurs seem to do at the Women’s Open.

Oh, and Michelle Wie was right there in the thick of it, too, all 6 feet and 1 inch of her, teetering on the cusp of history, trying to become the youngest winner of our national championship. As for the stage, it was right out of some dreamy, general store postcard. Newport Country Club is a posh playground for the rich, a place where JFK and Ike once romped. A true American classic, staging a huge championship more than a century after it played host to the first two U.S. Golf Association championships.

Can this possibly get any better?

Actually, it can. As if this were some pinball game with all the red specials lit, we got an unexpected bonus: Not one, but two loops on Sunday. That’s right, 36 holes. A full day of golf. Sunday at the Open – squared. As in, “Let’s play two.”

Somewhere, Ernie Banks had to be grinning ear to ear.

Well, 36 holes did nothing to separate Sorenstam and Hurst, try as they might. They showed up for an 8:20 a.m. tee time knotted at the top and ended a long day some 11 hours later still deadlocked. Sorenstam lipped out at 18, Hurst sank a clutch par putt and both finished at 284 strokes for the championship. Riveting stuff.

A frenetic crowd, gathered on a Kodak-moment, sunsplashed Sunday on the Atlantic seaboard, awash in the tense and stirring atmosphere of a down-to-the-wire Open finish, soaking up every second of it. Sorenstam and Hurst, two friends and old Solheim Cup rivals, staring eye to eye over 36 holes, battling toe to toe, answering each other shot for shot, the drama building to a crescendo . . . and then the channel abruptly switches to “Heidi.”

At this point, the needle goes screeching across the 78 rpm phonograph in sheer fingernails-down-the-chalkboard fashion. A Monday playoff. Pffffffffffffffffffft. That’s the sound of all the air being let out of the MetLife blimp.

By the time Sorenstam and Hurst had dinner, slept, then got back to work Monday morning, the whole world was, well, back to work.

This championship deserved so much better. Hampered by rain and rudely interrupted by a day of thick, soupy fog, the 61st U.S. Women’s Open took the baton from last year’s exciting finish at Cherry Hills and ran with it the best it could. Even though the grand old dame at Newport wasn’t showing her usual hard-and-fast golden colors – courtesy of the irrigation-less course’s superintendent supreme, one Mother Nature – she did present a British Open of sorts, all dressed up in red, white and blue. With incessant winds whipping off the Atlantic, as tests go, she was all anyone wanted.

Storylines? Sorenstam was regaining her groove. Stacy Prammanasudh was making more pars than young Nick Faldo. Inkster showed up in all her Open grittiness. Hurst refused to vanish. Pak made a late run. And Wie, a rock star in plastic cleats, walked the hallowed grounds as if she’d played in a hundred of these things, displaying a placidity that proclaimed this might finally be her week.

A 36-hole marathon finish only added to the thickened plot. Once a Sunday staple at this event, a 36-hole finale at the Open had not been encountered since 1990 at Atlanta Athletic Club, where Patty Sheehan enjoyed an 11-shot lead at one point in the final round and didn’t even leave with the trophy. Lots of things can happen on an Open Sunday. Especially when you multiply by two.

For the most part, the double feature barely seemed to faze players. Actually, it was kind of cool, seeing that the very first U.S. Open, played at Newport in 1895, featured 11 competitors playing four nine-hole loops. Horace Rawlins won that day, his $150 winner’s bounty barely enough to pay for a new iPod.

“That’s kind of what I felt like I was doing today,” joked Inkster. “Four nine-hole loops.”

There were the occasional lapses that could be attributed to mental fatigue, such as the moment Inkster putted off the ninth green en route to bogey. But for the most part, player adrenaline and the opportunity to seize history by the jugular ruled the day.

Hurst survived 36 holes of pressure-packed, Open golf just fine. It wasn’t until she hoisted her tiny daughter at the end of the day that her arm began to cramp a little.

“I’d die for this,” she said when asked if she felt tired. “This is what we live for.”

As atmospheres go, Sunday at Newport was electric. And then, with a good hour of daylight left and a gallery that had invested so much emotion wanting to see a winner crowned, the curtain fell. “We now interrupt this fantastic Open championship to bring you, er, Monday.”

When it comes to traditions, the day-after 18-hole Open playoff needs to go the way of persimmon and the gutta percha. The Masters, British Open and PGA have found suitable methods to declare a playoff winner on Sunday. Apologies to Retief Goosen, but the2001 Monday U.S. Open finish at Southern

Hills was about as thrilling as a widget-makers’ convention.

It’s too bad the U.S. Golf Association, which conducted two terrific championships, does not see the light on this one.

Had Hurst and Sorenstam simply marched back to the 18th tee Sunday evening and played one more hole, their 37th of the day, trust me, no one would have questioned the worthiness of the last player standing.

Instead, we got “Stay tuned ’til Monday.” Might as well have Regis and Kelly Ripa in the booth.

Sunday at Winged Foot a few weeks ago was downright wild, and will be remembered for a long, long time. Likewise, Sunday at Newport had almost every critical ingredient a great championship needs, sans one: a conclusion.

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