Walking around Bethpage State Park, this attractive collection of golf courses a few minutes north of the Farmingdale train station, you feel like a guest of the people of New York: The city, the state, the state of mind. This is my second trip to the area since September 11, and I feel confident in concluding this: I like New Yorkers. I want to be on the same team as New Yorkers. As my friends and I used to say years ago when it was more possible, if I ever get in a bar fight, I want New Yorkers on my side.
Reasonable question: How do you discover all this against the backdrop of a golf tournament?
Its more shown than spoken, although people here have never been afraid to speak. Even removing the odd (and in my case, inexplicable) magnetic effect of carrying a microphone around, I was struck by the number of people at Bethpage who approached Golf Channel people, hands out, smiles bright, speaking words to this effect:
Welcome to New Yawk! Like our cawse? Yeah, I play the Red all the time, but the Black, whoa boy, maybe once or twice a yee-ah. Gotta man up for that one. Hey, where you stayin? Theres a good Italian place ovah there. Ill give you directions. Me? Oyster Bay. My friend hee-ahs from Syosset.
Yes, the island and the city are replete with aggressive drivers, rusting bridges, indifferent cabbies, and airports right out of Dante. But theres no one quite like New Yorkers.
As best as I can figure out, they are proud that such a prestigious championship in such a pure sport (no doping, no posses, no prima donna free agents holding management hostage for undeserved millions, no uncaring management looking for naming rights while forgetting the fans) would come to their back yard, to a public course. It fits. Theres more public in New York than anywhere.
And beyond that, they are just proud, but in a way that takes more maturity than jaw-jutting. The entire regions population could be forgiven for terminal belligerence after what happened to their city. But what I see in their eyes looks like a slow, warm burn instead of an inferno. New Yorkers refuse to be daunted. They will not hand over that victory to the blackguards who attacked their city and our country.
Instead, they will come out and enjoy the golf. As I said on television Wednesday, the Masters promotes an atmosphere of easy gentility. But the early part of U.S. Open week is the summers first golf festival.
Not that the week has been without poignant moments. Retired New York firefighter John Vigiano, who lost two sons, a fireman and a policeman, in the attack on the World Trade Center, wears a patch on his golf shirt showing a picture of his boys in uniform. The patch bears the words, Our Twin Towers. If you can hold back tears after seeing that, witness Vigianos grandson giving to U.S. Golf Association president Reed Mackenzie a golf ball that was found in the rubble at Ground Zero. See the widows and other children afterward, smiling in thanks to the reporters and others who attended. Its no wonder that one of our cameramen, who has a reputation for being a little callous, was stone-faced and quiet for some time after shooting that press conference.
But New Yorkers refuse to wallow. They continued to welcome visitors and mingle in friendly fashion on the golf course, by the putting green, in the merchandise tent, and at the train station, where many of us laughed and shuffled about as we tried to fit as many people as possible under a rain shelter Wednesday afternoon.
Back in my lawyer days, in Pittsburgh, I would often work late on summer evenings and then walk across the bridge to Three Rivers Stadium and take in a Pirates game. Along about the third inning, slouching in my seat, tie undone and suit coat rumpled, I had already struck up baseball chats with the strangers sitting around me. The rapport grew quickly, so that by the eighth, the poor guy selling the early edition of the next days Post-Gazette would again have to endure the old joke as one of us mouthed off, Hey, who won the game?
Ive seen it happen over and over, this greasing of the social wheels that sports provides. Be it baseball, World Cup, golf, you name it ' people use sports as a way to loosen up, to relax, to start talking ' and smiling.
New Yorkers have used it as a way to keep healing. And for that, may God and golf continue to bless them.