BETHESDA, Md. – Billed as a traffic nightmare and a penetrating furnace, neither situation arose Wednesday here in the shadows of our nation’s capital.
At least not if you stuck to the confines of Congressional Country Club, where the final practice day to the 2011 U.S. Open was as leisurely and serene as it gets. Heck, Wednesday pro-ams at weekly PGA Tour stops present more of a buzz than what we had anywhere across this week’s 75,740-yard golf course.
Or is it 7,574? It’s so easy to misplace a comma when you have 27 check-points to go through before reaching the first tee.
Massive in golf course length and over the top in security, the 111th U.S. Open is still awaiting its legacy, be it recalled for the year in which Tiger Woods did not show up or the one where Phil Mickelson arrived at the winner’s circle. With a dozen amateurs, 29 who started their journey at local qualifying, and exactly one-third of the field – 50 of 150 – listed as U.S. Open rookies, there’s a curiosity to this major that leaves you in a state of wonderment.
To perhaps answer questions and solve some mysteries, this day before the opening tee shot was spent wandering aimlessly. Beneath pulsating sunshine and enveloped by brilliant temperatures, it was a day to watch, to listen, to observe, and while nothing relates to who will win this year’s national open, the sights and sounds validate it as a walk put to good use.
Good fun: Few in the field possess as sharp and biting a sense of humor as Lucas Glover, and he had a field day with a golf writer in light of the headline in USA Today. Promoting its U.S. Open coverage inside, the headline on Page 1 read, “Tiger out: Anyone can win,” and that ignited Glover’s sense of humor.
“I feel good, now that I know I have a chance,” Glover said. “I was afraid none of us had a chance. But now, I’ll stay. I’ve got a chance. Yeah.”
The headline wasn’t a true reflection of what the story actually was about, but why let that get in the way of good fun. And let’s not forget, Glover had good reason to generate the laughs, dripping in sarcasm that they were; after all, he won the 2009 U.S. Open – with Woods in the field, no less.
Who are these guys?
“Could you tell me who’s in this group?” the man asked.
Not an easy call, given that Alex Cejka seems to change his hairstyle every few weeks. But after a quick study it was determined to be him. Oh, and Marcel Siem was another in the group, his ponytail clearly distinguishable from Miguel Angel Jimenez’s ponytail.
As for the third member, it had to be Robert Karlsson, and with that, the appreciative spectator said thanks and walked away.
Seconds later, it was discovered that a mulligan was needed. It was not Karlsson; it was Maarten Lafeber. Sadly, from a distance those 6-foot-5 Swedes with double Ss in their name look so similar to 6-3 Dutchmen with double As.
Odd pairing: Championship officials might manufacture official pairings so that Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the world order are paired together.
But they can’t do a thing about practice rounds, so as folks rushed to catch up at the seventh tee with heralded Englishman Luke Donald, they scratched their heads as to the mystery player alongside.
Why, it was a mountain of a man – Andres Gonzales.
Ah, yes. The traditional Wednesday practice round pairing of Nos. 1 and 918.
Bridge to nowhere? It is a long and wobbly walk over a bridge floating on pontoons that leads you from the 18th green to a steep set of stairs and eventually to the first tee.
Now forget, if you can, that it reportedly cost $50,000 to build. The bridge is a shaky walk and led Butch Harmon to quip, as he braced himself on the railing, that it felt like the walk home the night before.
Taking Heat: For some reason, Rory McIlroy’s pre-tournament interview focused on the Miami Heat’s stunning loss a few nights earlier.
The young man from Northern Ireland explained how it hurt, that he was a text pal with LeBron James and that he hated to see the Heat lose.
Solves that mystery. We were wondering who the Heat fan was.
Plenty of changes: It’s nice to have so much money you can be silly, but you’ve probably heard about the dynamics here at Congressional CC, at least in relation to when the U.S. Open last visited, in 1997.
The 18th hole then was a par 3, but that no longer exists. Vanquished, it seems.
The 17th hole then was a daunting par 4. Now it’s a daunting par 4 18th hole. It requires a tee shot that is best shaped right-to-left, then an elevated approach to a green that juts out into a lake.
Very, very tough hole. In fact, here’s a prediction – more than half the field will simply lay up their second shots short of the green rather than bring a watery hazard into play.
Of note, there’s a three-story birdhouse/townhouse to the left of the green. Given the silly real estate prices in the D.C. area, prices reportedly start at $2,350 a month, if you know a wealthy bird.
Birdseed, of course, is included.
Up to the challenge: As Henrik Stenson drove off the first tee and headed down the fairway, Dr. Bob Rotella walked right along. Not far away, Michael Campbell was hitting driver after driver on the range and standing right there with him was Jos Vanstiphou.
Give them this, Rotella and Vanstiphou aren’t afraid of challenges.
Hmmmmm: It was reported that Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were going to visit the White House and meet President Obama.
Lefty and DL3 are annual visitors to President Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and we’d be willing to be they haven’t voted democratic since balata bid farewell.
Luck of the draw: Randy Smith felt like he had hit the lottery. Not only did one of his students, Gary Woodland, get into the field at last call, but he was slipped into an 8:39 pairing Thursday morning alongside Ryan Palmer. Good deal there, because Palmer happens to be another of Smith’s students.
Obviously, the boys aren’t adverse to making things easy on their coach nor hanging out with one another, because Woodland and Palmer played nine holes Monday, 18 Tuesday, and nine more Wednesday.
Throw in the fact that another Smith student, Harrison Frazar, joined a few of those practice rounds and it’s no wonder the swing coach was smiling.
“It felt like the back end of the range at Royal Oaks (Country Club in Dallas),” Smith said. “It’s been so much fun.”
Fashion statement: Major championship calls for major decisions. Like which Polo shirt you’re going to wear on which day. That was part of the conversation between Polo guys Webb Simpson and Love as they took a break between buckets of balls on the range.
Not sure if Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon discussed which sort of blazer and tie one another would wear.
Some grumbling: Thirteen sectional qualifying sites featured a long list of quality players with PGA Tour resumes, many of them with PGA Tour or European Tour victories. Yet at many of those sites, amateurs and unheralded journeymen made their way in, at the expense of the PGA Tour guys.
It’s a source of discontent with some and you don’t have to go far to hear grumbling. Going to the Dallas site to pick amateur Michael Whitehead to replace Tiger Woods, for instances, gets eyebrows raised, especially when a host of PGA Tour names lost out in Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis.
But for the other side of the debate, consider PGA Tour player Jason Dufner. He was one of four to get through a small field in Georgia, but he knew there weren’t many spots when compared to Columbus (16) and Memphis (10) that were jam-packed with notable names. Had he failed, he said he wouldn’t have moaned and he suggests those who fell short in Ohio and Tennessee shouldn’t either.
“If you can’t get in with 16 spots, you have no reason to complain,” Dufner said.