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How Bout This Year in Golf

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Nothing weve seen in 60 years quite compares. Always appropriately dignified about its place in the world - a nice game contested rather peacefully by gentlemen and ladies - golf became fused to every other part of the engine of America on Sept. 11. Not since the late 1930s and into the 40s - Pearl Harbor and our full engagement in World War II - had a Ryder Cup been cancelled. The world of golf went home like everyone else, to contemplate the future, and mourn for our nation.
 
Tigers victory at The Masters this spring recalled an achievement untouched in some 70 years. He evoked Bobby Jones, the only other man to have consecutively won his eras four most important championships. Woods emanates a radiance that Jones possessed, one that captivated an entire country, the world even. While Tigers slam tied two seasons together, Jones won his slam - the amateur and open titles each in the U.S. and Great Britain - in the same year, 1930. He retired soon after, and then embarked on building Augusta National. That Tigers ultimate ascension would occur at the house that Jones built, a special place that embodies a bit of the past and future of America, is quite significant. It was nearly 25 years ago that Lee Elder became the first black man to play in the Masters.
 
The U.S. Open was as bizarre as The Masters was historic. This was a golf tournament as Carnoustian folly. And while no one wishes on anyone the kind of calamity that visited Van de Velde, he did give the golfing literati a little toy with which to play. It was a standard bearer in tragic-comedy. Thus you can use Carnoustian, as well as Van de Veldian, as you would Shakespearean. This particular U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Oklahoma starred Retief Goosen, the very unassuming South African with the pretty rhythm, so efficient and placid you hardly notice, the kind every era seems to have. A Julius Boros, say, or an Al Geiberger or even Ernie Els, another South African whod already won a U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994. That type.

It also featured Mark Brooks, a wiry Texan whos from the school where you shape your ball rather than overpower it. Also, there was Stewart Cink, perhaps a taller, American version of Goosen ' unassuming, underrated even, but not in-your-face with greatness.
 
The feeling Saturday night was that the final picture figured to include the more splashy names of Duval, Mickelson and Garcia. Mickelson, you would think, is destined to win a U.S. Open someday, for this is the guy whom Payne Stewart touched shortly before he passed on. Payne had made that snaking putt on a misty day to win at Pinehurst, and then put his arms on Phils shoulders, as if to bless him. But Phil just didnt have it at Southern Hills. And naturally there was then a more fevered pitch to the debate, Will Phil ever win a major?
 
Meanwhile, Sergio had already proven his mettle at classic courses that placed a premium on accuracy and shot-making, layouts like Colonial and later Westchester. Southern Hills fit his driving skills quite well. But Sergio it turns out was most remembered that weekend for his incessant fidgeting, the count-em- till-he-stops grip and re-grip habit which proved difficult to watch. Like Phil, Sergio didnt perform well on Sunday. David Duval, too, simply couldnt eliminate his mistakes, but he would later put it all brilliantly together at the British Open.
 
So, as is often the case at a national championship, this one was lost rather than won daringly, and contested to the finish by everymen and not the super-duper stars. Think Lou Graham. Steve Jones. At Southern Hills, Goosen strode up the 18th green a sure winner, handsome and even refined. He would be a pleasant, though not overly charismatic, champion from a country that had given us many a great golfing hero - Gary Player, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els.
 
We admired his 6-iron, majestic and pure to some 12 feet or so. Cink needed to hole a long one to tie Goosen, who it was assumed would two-putt. Brooks had already three-putted, and he, too, was resigned to his fate, knowing Goosen couldnt possibly blow it as close as he was. Cink rolled a beauty, nearly holing it, producing a full-throated groan from the gallery. Good try, but not to be. The come-backer really meant so little, not with Goosen in so close. Cink stroked his bogey putt from only a couple of feet, and it missed. There was the customary gasp from the audience simply because it was rather short, not because hed blown something sacred.
 
Goosen then putted, but rather than cozy it up, he threw it by the hole some two to three feet. And then came the oh-my-gosh golfing moment of the year. Goosen missed. Hed made five. Three-putted from short range. Brooks would go to a playoff on Monday with Goosen. Cink would go home and explain that he didnt feel badly, that hed hit a good first putt and had had no idea that his bogey putt would mean anything.
 
Goosen met the failure straight up, answering questions before retiring to his room. He gathered himself well, and won going away the next day. In the end he had not suffered a Van de Veldian fate. He was instead a U.S. Open champion. And we as writers and fans hadnt had that much disbelieving fervor beneath a golf discussion since perhaps Tiger at Pebble and certainly Van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.
 
Other highlights this season in no particular order of importance, but simply for their impact, are as follows:
 
Tigers putt at 17 at The Players, suggesting there was no limit to his magic;
 
David Toms hole-in-one Saturday at the PGA Championship, second in my shot-of-the-year category behind Tigers more historically important last putt at Augusta to clinch four in a row;
 
Toms ice-cold, no-doubt-about-it lay-up par to beat Mickelson at that PGA Championship;
 
The flowering of Charles Howell, for while we knew he was good, who couldve imagined that by seasons end hed be dressed like Jesper and also among the most quotable players on Tour;
 
Another gratifying rags-to-riches tale in Jose Coceres, who rose from poverty in Argentina to become a winner on The PGA Tour at 38, taking Hilton Head and Disney, where he wore an American pin on his lapel, saying in his halting English later that after September 11 we are all Americans;
 
Mickelsons par at Bay Hills 72nd, only to be trumped by Tigers birdie;
 
Annikas 59, demonstrating that men dont have an exclusive on the unbelievable in golf;
 
Karries U.S. Womens Open runaway, proving that while Annika had had the better overall year, Karrie may still be the best player in the world;
 
Karries tears for her grandfather while winning The McDonalds, reminding people Karrie is not emotionless;
 
Jacks run at Salem, and hasnt he always given us a run somewhere, even now into his early 60s, for crying out loud; and isnt it always electrifying even if he doesnt win?!;
 
Ty Tryons teenage smile at the Honda, and here comes a whole new generation of kids who dont necessarily place limits on themselves.
 
Some personal moments and people Ill remember:
 
The firemen of Engine 22, Ladder 13 in Manhattan, who shared their stories and their meat loaf with us one month after the attacks as we prepared a Golf Central special for Thanksgiving Eve; all the brave families, too, for whom in many cases golf was some of the good in the good times remembered;
 
And finally, Cliff Kresge, a struggling pro who toiled on the PGA Tour and will have to return to Q-School. While covering the late October Buick Challenge in Pine Mountain, Georgia, I bumped into Cliff Wednesday evening before the tournament in the hotel lobby. He seemed happy, strolling his little boy, Mason, alongside his wife, Tina. We chatted. He was playful with his son. I asked him if he was excited for the tournament to start, for the chance to make a late-season run. He told me with no trace of bitterness that he wasnt in the tournament; that theyd come down as an alternate, on their own dime, on the hope that someone would drop out.
 
It didnt happen. But what struck me was how optimistic he and his wife were. It seemed as if with their baby they understood that they were lucky, even if this year hadnt worked out as theyd planned. I said goodbye to them, in a strange way equally as optimistic that this game will continue on in good stead as much because of people like Cliff Kresge as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam and Jose Coceres.
 
Like you and me, they all love golf, and the country that lets them play it freely.