Louder than Phoenix? Louder than the ’99 Ryder Cup? Louder than a Metallica concert? Every U.S. Open player who had his eardrums pulverized by the New York fans packed along Bethpage State Park’s Black Course knew that he was witnessing a record-setter, only the record was for decibel count.
The Open quota of 42,500 fans wouldn’t even fill Yankee Stadium, but it was a big enough flock to turn the muddy fringes of this public course into a tribal gathering that at times resembled Woodstock more than the National Open.
“It’s not Augusta out there,” sighed Scott McCarron after getting a four-hour earful.
No, and it wasn’t Winged Foot, Shinnecock or Baltusrol either, the other New York-area clubs that have played host to majors in the last decade. While the crowds at those venues – all sanctified country-club grounds – might have been vocal, there never has been heard anything like the intense volume of hollering served up at Bethpage.
The five courses at Bethpage State Park play host to roughly 300,000 rounds per year – with the brutal Black Course getting 10 percent of that traffic. Given the stormy cataracts of sound thundering around the Open, it seemed as if every dogged foot soldier who ever teed it up at the public grounds was there to offer advice, and plenty of it.
But who would have forecast that the main target of all that yelling would not be Lord Tiger of Windermere, but the slow-moving, almost sultry Californian, Phil Mickelson? When Mickelson walked up the 207-yard mosh pit called the par-3 17th, the hurrahs and huzzahs for Mickelson went on and on like an all-night frat party. Ten minutes later, Woods showed up, and it was NBC rover Roger Maltbie who received the song treatment.
The Mickelson love-fest began in earnest Saturday when he began mounting a charge on his way to a 3-under 67. Waves of “Phil! Phil! Phil!” soared over the treetops along with all manner of singular endearments, such as: “It’s ya birthday tomorrah, ya big bollocks, so you’re buyin!’ ”
These pearls weren’t dropped here and there, it was every step of the way of his seven-mile hike. Walking off the 14th green, players had to descend into a tunnel of trees to get to the 15th tee. As Mickelson shambled down the path, fans clustered along the ropes howled like banshees with the sort of volume you’d use from the centerfield bleachers, not addressing somebody a few inches away.
Too bad Sergio Garcia could not feel the love in the room. After he groused Friday that the rainswept round would surely have been called if Woods had been on the course, then responded to shouts of “Hey, Waggle Boy!” with a gesture that may or may not have flashed the rude digit, he was suddenly a marked man.
He should have at least known about the waggling – his infuriating reluctance to pull the trigger is precisely the sort of thing that would drive impatient New Yorkers nuts.
“Sergio put the ball in the fans’ court,” Jeff Maggert, his Saturday playing partner, said after overhearing the daylong insult-fest. “But some of the comments were pushing the limit.”
If Garcia arrived in New York a chipper, beaming 22-year-old, he departed with a quality set of New York calluses on his psyche. As Reggie Jackson once said of New York fans, “They don’t let you escape with minor scratches and bruises; they put scars on you.”
But then, almost everybody got a blast of it. Korean golfer K.J. Choi was followed by a crowd of Asian businessmen who mingled in the crowd screaming, “Choi! Choi! Choi!” Even architect Rees Jones, who doctored the course, was recognized and given the hullabaloo.
“Someone yelled, ‘You stuck it to ’em, Rees!’ ” Jones recalled, smiling like a guy who really did sell someone the Brooklyn Bridge.
The raucous finale of the Open was a decided switch from the somber buildup to the affair. In the weeks leading to the event, everywhere you turned was a tearful New York story wrapped around what are now known simply as “the Events.” The Twin Towers are gone, but they still cast a long shadow. And it was no unimaginable stretch to link the World Trade Center strike to the U.S. Open: The Bethpage courses have been a longtime refuge for firefighters and cops. Many a foursome was left emptied of a brother.
At a Wednesday ceremony, a group of firefighters presented the U.S. Golf Assocition the surprising talisman – a golf ball found at Ground Zero. Firefighter John Caputo explained: “On April 1, while searching through the rubble, I saw something that was white, and I thought it might have been a bone. When I picked it up, I realized it was a golf ball. And I just couldn’t believe out of all this destruction, something like a golf ball could survive all this.”
The Titleist 4 was presented to the USGA “to place into their museum for eternity.” The city long known for being world headquarters of brash arrogance was becoming known instead for its busted heart.
But then the competition started and the brazen wisenheimers came out to play.
While Mickelson was serenaded heavily by the lovestruck multitudes, the reaction for Woods, one group behind, was comparatively restrained. Perhaps it’s working into an Arnie and Jack deal: In the 1960s and ’70s, the crowd knew Nicklaus was the best golfer, but they loved Palmer more.
Amy Mickelson, fashion-model resplendent in a black leather jacket, was awestruck by the aural pandemonium.
“It’s been like this all week,” she said. “We’ve been going to Mets and Yankees games, and everywhere people have been calling out encouragement. How can you not feed off all that energy?”
Did that tidal wave of yelling serve to nourish Mickelson – or rattle him? As the insane cheering for Mickelson echoed all over the state park, Woods hardly felt deprived. He was simply delighted.
“It made it a lot easier for me,” Woods said afterward, the trophy by his side, “because he had to deal with all that. Phil was trying to make a move and people were singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.’ ”
As each major goes by, and Mickelson sneaks closer and closer to him, Woods might well hope that crowds keep drowning his No. 1 opponent in all that reckless love.