Back to the Black

By Rex HoggardJune 15, 2009, 4:00 pm
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2009 U.S. OpenThey dont dole out Tony Awards based on moxie, style points or golf, for that matter. But if they did the 2002 U.S. Open was a boffo success ' complete with the games preeminent leading man, Tiger Woods, slightly flawed hero, Phil Mickelson, and villain, Sergio Garcia.
The New York multitudes ' driven to excess by an Open to call their own on the most public of U.S. Golf Association layouts ' serenaded Phil, scolded Sergio and smiled politely for Tiger.
Historical accuracy aside, the golf course won the 02 Open, allowing just a single under-par score for the week, while Woods busted storylines and bubbles from Hicksville to East Hampton with the type of ballstriking exhibition that even the most spirited heckler had to appreciate.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods was the leading man at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. (Getty Images)
The Peoples Open had a champion, even if he wasnt the peoples choice. That honor went to Mickelson. The smiling Left Coaster endeared himself to the New York masses with his swing-for-the-fences style, while Woods play was clinical by comparison as he marched to his second consecutive major and second Open title.
It wasnt personal. Never is. Playing favorites is the New York way, and it seems the Yankees are the only franchise in these parts given carte blanche to dominate. In the end, each player simply played the part they were dealt ' Woods the ultimate task master, Garcia the brooding bit player and Mickelson the slightly flawed yet eternally entertaining challenger.
Mickelson made it a game, even after spotting the world No. 1 an eight-stroke advantage going into the weekend. Woods started impeccably with rounds of 67-68 and coasted on the weekend ' a 70-72 finish that included a bogey-par-bogey finish. Mickelson outplayed him to the finish line, with finishing rounds of 67-70, and in the hearts and minds of the New York faithful.
Whether the faithful are treated to Bethpage Black II when the national championship returns to public access perfection next week remains to be seen, but some of the cosmic tumblers have already fallen into place.
Woods rallied to win the Memorial at Muirfield Village, as close to an Open stand-in as the Tour will allow, with an eerily similar statistical line to his 02 work at Bethpage. He finished second in fairways hit, tying the best tee-to-fairway performance of his career, tied for third in greens in regulation and was 41st in putting average. In 02 at Bethpage he was tied for seventh, first and 53rd in the same indexes, respectively.
Woods compared his Memorial ballstriking show with the 2006 British Open which was played on a rock-hard pitch one golf writer dubbed Royal Yellow Brick Road. Woods swing coach Hank Haney pointed out, however, that his man won at Hoylake playing almost nothing but long irons from the tee. By comparison, the Memorial seemed even more impressive because he regularly hit driver around Jack Nicklaus place.
This is how you have to hit it in order to win U.S. Opens. Especially Bethpage. That golf course is as big as they come, Woods said on Sunday at Muirfield Village. It's just one of those things where you have to hit the ball well all week. I did that in 2002.
Woods rebuilt left knee remains a maintenance project while the swing he and Haney created post-surgery appears to be something less of an enigma, particularly after he went 14-for-14 in fairways hit on Sunday at Muirfield Village. Mickelsons part in the Long Island sequel remains very much in doubt.
The Tour learned last month that Mickelsons wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Lefty shut down his competitive schedule for four weeks to be at home. He returned last week at Memphis, where he tied for 59th and also slipped into Long Island early for a Bethpage scouting trip last Monday.
I'm not playing just to play, Mickelson said of the U.S. Open. I think Bethpage is a golf course that suits my game, that I love playing on that course, I love playing in the New York area. . . . There's a lot of question marks that I'll have. But that's the goal.
From a competitive standpoint, Mickelson appears to be every bit a Bethpage favorite, at least on paper. Prior to the 02 Open, Mickelson had one victory and tied for 25th in his warm up. He arrives in Long Island this time a two-time winner in 09 and buoyed by his final-round charge at Augusta National.
How he is prepared to shoulder through the emotional toll of Open week is impossible to quantify. In many ways the U.S. Open will be cathartic for Mickelson, a break from a difficult reality, and his current situation at home will likely further endear him to a New York fan base.
I'm looking forward to having a four- or five-hour mental break where I force myself to focus on something else, Mickelson said. We're certainly scared. I don't think it's going to affect how I play. I mean, I'm going to still, you know, play aggressively.
Garcia, meanwhile, arrives back at Bethpage where his disenchantment with the New York galleries was so profound he made what appeared to be an obscene gesture to some boisterous fans as he walked down the 16th fairway on Friday.
While the waggle is gone, the whine is not.
Estranged from his former girlfriend, Greg Normans daughter Morgan Leigh, and his game for much of this season, Garcia will likely be relegated to the role of sounding post for the vocal majority.
History, however, hints at a repeat, at least as far as Woods is concerned. Nicklaus, perhaps the most qualified observer when it comes to all things major championship, figured Woods would be unbeatable if he hit the ball at Bethpage like he did at Muirfield Village. His swing is greatly improved, Nicklaus said. Before, he didnt have to swing well to win. If he drives the ball like that it wont be a contest.
Of course, Mickelson and the New York vocal may have something to say about that.
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