Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Open Wrap

Based on previous U.S. Opens at the Olympic Club, there was never a time last weekend when I wasn’t thinking something out of the ordinary was going to happen late Sunday in San Francisco. After all, history was on the side of another surprising Olympic finish.

The 2012 U.S. Open had its sub-plots unfold in a rather bizarre fashion starting with Tiger Woods. When he grabbed the 36-hole lead it appeared that based on his history at the majors, this would be the elusive 16th major championship that Woods has been seeking for several years. When leading a major after two rounds Woods had been basically unbeatable.
However, Tiger stumbled badly and fell five shots off the pace. Ironically, Woods’ record in majors when trailing after 54 holes is 0-45. So, it then became predictable that Tiger was toast.

Lee Westwood appeared to be in a great position to finally win his first major on Sunday. He was just a couple of shots back and made a move early in the final round to close the gap. The Englishman appeared cool, calm and ready to collect a major title that he really deserves. Then all of a sudden what looked like a pretty good tee shot-got stuck in a cypress tree. Westwood lost his ball and two shots. He was never again heard from on Sunday. Westwood is still golf’s greatest player in the modern era, never to have won a major.

Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach a couple of years ago. The likeable Irishman plays well in northern California because the weather conditions often resemble that of his native Northern Ireland. McDowell has great nerves and is a fierce competitor. On Sunday, he slipped midway on the front nine when he bogeyed four of five holes after sharing the 54-hole lead.

I never figured you could count McDowell out. He proved his worth on the grand stage at the 2010 Ryder Cup when his match determined the outcome and he took out Hunter Mahan at Celtic Manor. McDowell hung in there on Sunday. He bounced back on the back nine and when he made a birdie at 17, he was only one shot out of the lead.

McDowell hit a great second shot into a front left pin placement on 18. He had a 20-footer downhill to tie for the lead. But, curiously he and his caddy totally misread the putt and McDowell was relegated to the role of runner-up.

Then there was little known Michael Thompson. I am still not sure who this guy is, but he kept moving up the leaderboard on Sunday. He had a chance to get to +1 for the Open on 17, but missed a short uphill birdie putt. You knew that if he made that putt, Thompson would probably somehow, at the very least, find a playoff on Monday. Based on past history at Olympic, Thompson could have replaced Jack Fleck as the most unlikely Olympic Open champ.

And then there was Jim Furyk. Solid, poised and a former major winner, he seemed primed to win his second career U.S. Open on Sunday. Hole after hole, in typical Furyk fashion, pars were being ground out. This was an Open where pars could produce a victory and Furyk seemed to have everything under control. Until, he reached the par 5, 16th hole.

This was the hole that measured 670 yards all week and had been dubbed one of the longest in U.S. Open history- until Sunday when the USGA inexplicably moved the tees up 100 yards. Furyk hit a three wood off the tee and snap hooked the shot deep into the trees. He went on the make bogey and fell out of the lead.

All over the United States this weekend when players snap hook a shot, their fellow competitors will probably say, “He Furyked that one.” Too bad that will be Jim’s legacy in the 2012 U.S. Open because he played great for 69 holes. But, after that errant shot on 16 he was finished. It was a collapse of great proportions on the final three holes and it once again demonstrated that pressure can affect the world’s greatest players.

And the last man standing was Webb Simpson. He set a U.S. Open record by vaulting past 29 players in the final 36 holes. That was the greatest comeback in Open history in terms of the number of players that a winner had passed in the final two rounds.

Ironically, it was another Simpson, Scott (no relation) who won at Olympic 25 years ago in 1987. On top of that, Webb Simpson attended Wake Forest University on an Arnold Palmer scholarship. Palmer lost the most heartbreaking Open of his career in 1966 at Olympic when he blew a seven shot lead on the back nine. Palmer eventually lost to Billy Casper the next day in a 18-hole playoff.

Simpson became the third straight American to win a major championship joining Keegan Bradley (PGA) and Bubba Watson (Masters). It was the 22nd win for an American in 26 PGA Tour events this season. Webb also became the 15th different winner in the past 15 major championships.

So, to say that the unexpected again happened at Olympic would be an understatement. Simpson and his wife, Dowd, are expecting their second child in a few weeks and this could force him to miss the British Open.

Okay, let’s put that into perspective. That would be expecting the expected? Way to go Webb! See you in September at the Ryder Cup.    



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

June 12, 2012 US Open at Olympic Club

This week the U.S. Open returns to the Olympic Club in San Francisco for the fifth time. Each time the Open has been played at Olympic the winning margin has been by a single stroke or in a playoff. All four previous Opens have had historical implications, mostly for the losers and how they lost.
In 1955, Ben Hogan was trying to win his fifth U.S. Open title, which would have left him with one more than Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones or Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list. Hogan dominated U.S. Open play in those years winning in 1948 at Riviera CC in Los Angeles; in 1950 at Merion GC in Philadelphia; in 1951 at Oakland Hills in Detroit and then in 1953 at Oakmont in Pittsburgh.
When Jack Fleck went to the Olympic Club in 1955 he had never won a professional event- let alone a major. He was playing with a new set of Ben Hogan irons. Fleck, in fact, had always idolized the great Hogan. Fleck started the tournament with a 76 and was nine shots off the lead set by Tommy Bolt. Fleck was probably satisfied since he hadn’t broken 80 in any practice round at Olympic that week.
Fleck rebounded with a second round 69, but stumbled with a third round score of 75. Hogan, meanwhile, was typically workmanlike in his approach on the rugged Olympic layout. When Hogan made par on the 72nd hole to post a 287 total he was congratulated by NBC color commentator Gene Sarazen on winning his fifth Open title.  NBC was so sure that Hogan had won, it went off the air shortly after announcing Hogan as the winner.
The only problem was that Fleck, an unheralded muni-course pro from Iowa, birdied two of the final four holes to tie Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff the following day. In the playoff, Hogan was ahead by three shots after 10. But, he trailed by one when they reached 18. Hogan hit his drive into the rough and made a double-bogey 6. Fleck made par to win by three shots. He would only win one more time on the PGA Tour.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer was going for his eighth major, and second Open. He began the final round with a three shot lead over Billy Casper. By the time they reached the turn, Palmer had stretched the lead to seven after shooting a 32 on the front nine. If Palmer shot a two over par 37 on the back nine, he would break Hogan’s U.S. Open scoring record of 276.
Casper recalls, “You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine. Every hole, the crowd got bigger- until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV.”
Casper himself was admittedly ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Palmer’s head.  At that point Casper was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema and as he stood on the tenth tee about to start the final nine, he said to Palmer, “I’d just like to finish second.”
Palmer grinned and replied, “I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
But, Palmer staggered in with a 39 and Casper torched the back nine with a 32 to move into a tie after 72 holes. It was the most remarkable comeback in U.S. Open history.  Both players were quickly rushed into the media room where hundreds of reporters were much more interested in what went wrong than what went right.
For almost an hour they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot and this decision and that decision. Palmer sat there and took every question he was asked. When it was over, a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. “Naw,” Palmer said, “The way I played, I deserve whatever they do me.”
Casper left San Francisco that night and drove an hour to deliver a fireside talk at a Mormon Church he had previously committed to.
“A deal’s a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left. To this day, I can remember every shot on that Sunday and every putt I hit, but all I remember about that speech is talking about my trip to Viet Nam. It was eleven o’clock when the meeting ended,” recalls Casper.
He returned to San Francisco after midnight. His wife, Shirley, grilled him some pork chops and served them with green beans and salad. He went to bed and by his own admission, slept like a man with nothing to lose.
The next day, Palmer was ahead by two shots at the turn. He made bogeys on 11, 14 and 15, then doubled 16. Casper shot 69 and won the playoff. It was palmer’s third Open playoff loss in five years.
In 1987, Tom Watson was one shot ahead going into Sunday after bogeying three of the final five holes in the third round. Scott Simpson birdied 14, 15 and 16 late Sunday afternoon to take a one shot lead. Watson had a 35-footer to tie, but left it inches short. Watson never won another major on American soil.
In 1998, Lee Janzen beat Payne Stewart by one stroke for the second time in a U.S. Open. Janzen overcame a five stroke deficit on Sunday making the best final round comeback since 1973. What many remember most about 1998 was the hole location on Friday, where Stewart missed an 8-foot birdie putt and wound up with a 25-footer coming back (which he missed).
So, there you have it. Four bizarre Opens at Olympic. It was four historic losers in Hogan, Palmer, Watson and Stewart. It was four unlikely winners in Fleck, Casper, Simpson and Janzen.
Enjoy your Father’s day weekend and expect the unexpected at Olympic!