Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The 108th and Greatest U.S. Open: The Playoff

The USGA takes a lot of criticism for holding an 18-hole Monday playoff to break ties. All the majors once used it, but since shifted to more TV-friendly formats: four-hole aggregate playoffs in the Open Championship and PGA, sudden death at the Masters. The last three playoffs had been won by good golfers (Payne Stewart, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen) playing OK golf and their pursuers playing poor golf. None had been particularly dramatic.

"Anticlimactic," some said. "Anachronistic," said others.

For 11 holes, that seemed the case. After lunch with Uncle Larry in Dearborn, I tuned in and found Woods and Mediate on the 12th tee. Rocco was struggling at 3 over par. Tiger had just bogeyed the 11th hole and shaved his lead from three strokes to two. The 12th hole was the longest par-4, at 504 yards, in U.S. Open history.

Tiger sprayed his tee shot askew. Rocco, after an accurate but short drive, had 240 yards to the hole. He took out a fairway metal. He made his characteristic half-waggle and foot shuffle, pulled the club back, and struck the ball onto the green, hole high.

"Oh, boy!" I shouted at the TV screen. "Now we've got ourselves a playoff!"

The rest is history.

Father's Day Finish

Benign conditions prevailed at Torrey Pines on Sunday. Low scores were there to be had. Retief Goosen, two-time U.S. Open champion, shot 67. Heath Slocum shot a bogey-free 65, the low round of the tournament. The final groups, though, felt the heat most intensely. The best score out of any of the last four pairings was Rocco Mediate's what-me-worry round of par 71.

Tiger and Lee Westwood weren't at their best. Woods, again, double-bogeyed the first hole to give away his miraculously earned lead. Westwood missed makeable birdie putts inside ten feet. At the 18th tee, both Woods and Westwood stood at even par for the tournament. Rocco was in the scorer's trailer at 1 under. A birdie by either player would set up a Monday playoff.

Woods drove it in the left fairway bunker. Westwood drove it in the right fairway bunker.

Westwood blasted out to a safe position on the short grass. Woods missed right and threw his club down in disgust. Both golfers had to get up and down from 100 yards to force a playoff. Westwood played 15 feet above the hole. Woods played a brilliant shot that landed hole high, 12 feet from the cup.

Lee Westwood didn't hit his putt hard enough. It curled left to right too early and stopped just short and right of the cup. He tapped in for par.

Tiger stalked his putt, looking deliberately from every angle. The stroke was true. The green in that area was bumpy. His ball shook, rattled, rolled, rimmed the cup - and curled in. "He rimmed it in," I said. Woods let out a primal roar. The crowd erupted. Westwood walked forlornly off the green.

The best was yet to come.

Tiger's Saturday Night Special

Somehow, when I got to Lucky's, an odd melange of an arcade, sports bar, martini bar, surprisingly good restaurant, dance club, and bowling alley under one roof, on Saturday night, Tiger Woods had rolled in a 60-foot bomb for eagle at the par-5 13th hole and got back to even par on the 17th tee.

I walked up to the bar, ordered an Arnold Palmer (half iced tea, half lemonade), and sat down for Woods's final two holes.

He hit an awful drive well right into the tall, gnarly U.S. Open rough. He tried a heroic second shot and found more tall, gnarly rough beside the green. The ball was on a severe slope at least a foot above his feet. The green ran away from him. I distinctly thought, "If he can somehow get up and down, and birdie 18, then he's only one stroke behind (Lee) Westwood." Westwood looked like the 54-hole leader at two under par.

Woods hacked at his ball. It hit the green, took one high hop, and fell directly into the cup. My jaw fell to the floor. "He put it in the hole!" I screamed. The bar patrons took a collective "Ohh", astonished. Woods shared a laugh with Steve Williams and shook his head in wonderment, as if thanking God for all He had entrusted to Woods.

If Woods hadn't made the chip-in at 17, I strongly doubt he would have eagled 18. He needed the crowd's energy, the realization of just how good he was, just to finish the round. And he did, with a flourish.

Two strong shots gave Woods a 25-footer for eagle and a tricky downhill putt that, it seemed, half the field had tried and not come close to holing. He started it on a line well left of any previous try. "Uh-oh", I thought, "he knows something we don't." Indeed, he rolled it true, and the ball broke right, then a little left, straight into the cup.

Looking back at the entire U.S. Open, the chip shot on 17 was one of the great greenside shots of all time. The gold standard, Tom Watson's chip-in on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach in 1982, was from a level position, not from the cartoonish uphill lie that Woods overcame.

Woods, after his 3-3 finish, walked off the 18th green one stroke ahead of Westwood.

Tiger and Rocco, in Four Parts

If Shakespeare lived, instead of recording the military exploits of medieval kings and noble Romans for posterity, he would dramatize the story of Tiger and Rocco for generations to come.

Just the names call forth the Muses. Tiger and Rocco. Rocco and Tiger. Those names aren't golfers' names. They sound like the combatants in a UFC title bout or a mixed-martial-arts exhibition. Somehow, a playoff between Lee (Westwood) and Geoff (Ogilvy), which came close to happening, wouldn't have had the same euphony.

Fittingly, the contest between Tiger and Rocco became a brawl. It had a visceral feeling of man on man, golf ball against golf ball, as if one could stymie the other. The atmosphere matched that of one of Sampras and Agassi's famous duels, or the Thrilla in Manila. The raucous patrons grasped the space-time singularity that made the 108th U.S. Open the greatest of them all.

Tiger the Gimp

Woods played the Masters in pain, couldn't hole a putt, yet finished second when the entire field, save champion Trevor Immelman, crumbled under the brutal Sunday conditions at Augusta. He then had knee surgery. The recovery took longer than most expected. He missed the Memorial, Jack's tournament, when he hoped to return. He hadn't played a competitive round in over two months.

Woods double-bogeyed his first hole on Thursday. Playing in pain, he managed 1-under for the first two rounds. On Saturday it got worse. Coming out of a bunker, he hoisted himself up with two golf clubs, like a pair of crutches. The winces and grimaces grew more pronounced. Lesser golfers would have withdrawn.

Rocco's Modern Life

Rocco Mediate grew up in the steel-driving towns of West Pennsylvania, the area best known as the cradle of quarterbacks: Unitas, Namath, Montana, Marino. Arnold Palmer was his hero, and the national championship, the U.S. Open, was his tournament. An affable, fast-talking, nearly hyperactive, thoroughly frank man, he wore his heart on his clothing - literally. He festooned his hat with pins from previous U.S. Opens. On Sunday, he sported a giant peace symbol for his belt buckle.

And his shot! Renowed swing gurus shook their heads. He hit every full shot with a pronounced right-to-left draw. He couldn't fade the ball to save his life. Yet the big hook was big-time under crushing pressure for the whole tournament.

There it goes...

Well, the political crystal ball got a bit cloudy. One of my VP picks, Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio, is no more: he issued a Shermanesque statement last week.

Obama still has many attractive options. He can choose Evan Bayh or Sherrod Brown if he wants to shore up the Midwest. Jim Webb is raring to go. However, my best hunch is a selection from the Mountain West, which he would really like to carry (and has to carry for 271 electoral votes, if he can't win Ohio or Florida). This puts forward Bill Ritter, Brian Schweitzer, and Bill Richardson as the most likely candidates.

McCain, from the little that I've heard, seems to be leaning more towards Tim Pawlenty. That would be a mistake; McCain needs more liveliness out of his running mate.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Eclipse game post (3)

Venue: Eastpointe, MI
Opponent: Mt. Clemens Regulars
Score: L (4-6)
Batting: 1-3

Mt. Clemens has improved as a team over the past year. They scored four of their runs on a pair of tremendous clouts over our outfielders' heads, which turned into two-run home runs. Their fielding was crisp and allowed us few chances on the bases.

The club also has a rule that you must keep one foot on the stride line (a horizontal line across the middle of home plate). This was common in early baseball, before some wise man thought of the batter's box. However, it hurt our striking. Most of us keep our back foot on the line and step forward with our front foot. This means that the pitches come in a little faster, and a little higher, than usual - just enough to throw a batter off.

First time up, I popped up. I realized what happened, adjusted, and got unlucky on a foul tip straight back, then hit a ground single to the right side. However, my teammates kept popping up and making the Regulars' job easy for their fielders. I was on deck in the ninth when Dutch, who had pitched very well, hit into an unlucky double play on a hard one-hopper to end the match.

At least we weren't embarrased, as we were in Romeo (a game I missed) when the Regulars won 16-2. My season batting record stands at 6-15 (.400), with 1 tally and 3 runs driven in.

Ultra-Secret V.P. Picks!

While I am not privy to internal campaign rumors, I have a good sense of whom McCain and Obama ought to choose as their vice-presidential nominees.

Republican: Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana. There's speculation that McCain will choose Tim Pawlenty, the young Governor of Minnesota and one of McCain's early supporters in the dark days of his candidacy, or his buddy, Charlie Crist, the Governor of Florida. Both of these selections would be mistakes.

Running a ticket of two white men against Barack Obama would not be visually appealing - even more so if the Democratic V.P. nominee is female. It might appeal to the 20% of the electorate that won't vote for a black man, but it would marginalize the Republican ticket in the eyes of independent voters in key swing states.

Jindal is young, rising, and savvy, and he heralds a new role for Indian-Americans in U.S. politics. If McCain wins, he's in pole position to succeed him. If McCain loses, it's no skin off his back; Jindal can go back to being an effective governor and burnishing his credentials. Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't hurt by running with James Cox (and losing badly) in 1920 when his turn came twelve years later.

Democratic: Ted Strickland, Governor of Ohio. Barack Obama won't, and shouldn't, choose Hillary Clinton. There's too much water under the bridge. When Senator Obama thanked Senator Clinton for making him a stronger candidate, he really meant, "Thanks for digging up all the dirt on me in the primaries, so that voters forget about it come November." Privately, he doesn't want the Clintons anywhere near the ticket. He has enough to worry about.

But he does have to worry about the Electoral College. McCain will win Florida - older voters tend to care more about Obama's race than younger voters. Obama has an uphill climb in Ohio, which Kerry narrowly lost in 2004, and Pennsylvania, where Hillary decisively beat him. Even if he can turn Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico, he needs one of those two states.

Strickland is his best bet to carry Ohio and appeal to Appalachia in general - he studied at Kentucky's well-reputed Asbury Theological Seminary, earning an M. Div., and has a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. He would be a potent ally for Obama, and has the advantage of starting the primary season as a Hillary supporter.