RealClearSports: For Tiger, the Hardest Major of the Year

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- He liked his chances, as did the rest of us, a following that included the man he someday should supplant as the game's standard.

"I suspect,'' Jack Nicklaus had mused, alluding to Tiger Woods' 14 major championships, "that No. 15 will come in two weeks.''

Jack was speaking after Tiger won Nicklaus' own tournament, the Memorial. After Tiger never missed a fairway the last round. After Tiger seemingly verified he was ready to take this calamitous U.S. Open at Bethpage.

And even Tiger, properly favoring himself, told us, "I like my chances in any major.''

Yet as the 109th Open, a tournament with more suspensions than suspense, slogged through to a merciless conclusion at the course nicknamed "Wetpage,'' Tiger's chances were gone.

With the Open spilling over into Monday, it wasn't clear who would win: maybe Ricky Barnes, whose huge lead of Sunday afternoon had disappeared; maybe Lucas Glover, who had come from six shots back to tie Barnes; maybe even David Duval.

It was clear who wouldn't win, Tiger Woods.

Once again, a year after taking the championship, he took a figurative punch to the jaw. He couldn't repeat in 2001 or 2003. He couldn't repeat in 2009.

Even though we thought he would. Even though he thought he could, if with a caveat.

Not for 20 years has anyone won Opens back-to-back.

Not Nicklaus, not Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen or Andy North, although along with Tiger and Jack they did win more than one Open.

Since Ben Hogan, in 1950-51, a stretch of 58 years, only Curtis Strange in 1988-89 has taken Opens consecutively, an achievement he not so humbly embellished with the pronouncement, "Move over, Ben.''

Tiger was in the wrong place, the early starting wave on Thursday, at the wrong time, when the first of several storms powered in and, with Woods and playing partners Padraig Harrington on the seventh green, halted play until Friday.

The golfers who didn't get on course until the second day and then got in most of two rounds were those who got the good break.

Rub of the green, it's called in golf. And the green rubbed Woods very much the wrong way.

He got shafted by Mother Nature. Then he got in trouble. When Tiger returned on Friday, he was even par with four holes to play. And four-over par after those four holes. Balls dropped into the rough. Putts slid by the cup.

It was a precursor. And a reminder.

"This is the hardest major we face,'' said Woods, "year in, year out. Narrowest fairways, highest rough. You have to have every facet of your game going.''

Nicklaus played more than 40 Opens. He won four. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson won one apiece. Greg Norman never won any. The hardest major they face.

Heading into the final round, Tiger was at 1-over par 211 for 54 holes. Nine shots behind Ricky Barnes. Tiger's game wasn't going anywhere, although by the time play stopped, Woods having completed seven holes of the last round, he was even par. And seven shots back of Barnes and Glover.

"All week,'' said Woods on Sunday, "I hit it better than my scoring indicates. My finish the first day put me so far back, I had to try and make up shots the entire time. I finished that day playing poorly.''

No one finished anything Sunday, when play was called because of darkness. This is the pain of sport. This is the wonder of sport. We never know.

Rafael Nadal didn't win the French Open, even though we believed he would. Tiger Woods won't win the U.S. Open, even though we believed he would. You've heard it so many times, and you'll hear it again: That's why they play the game.

There's something reassuring in all this, not that Tiger was unable to meet expectations, but that sitting around and forecasting winners doesn't mean a great deal. The people on the courses and courts and diamonds are the ones who have the real say.

Tiger and Phil Mickelson and Ricky Barnes come back next week, and the probability is that everything is different. But they're not coming back. They had their chances. Barnes was making the best of his. Tiger couldn't do the same.

When after the third round somebody, dreaming, asked in effect if Tiger could overtake the leaders.

"Bethpage,'' said Woods who won here in 2002, "is one of those courses where you have to play a great round and get some help.''

Throughout this Open, Tiger had neither.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009

Scotland Sunday Herald: Barnes surfaces after years of expectation

GOLF: Former amateur prodigy profits as washout engulfs rivals, writes Art Spander

PUTTS WERE falling, and again so were raindrops. The wettest, messiest and most confusing of US Opens kept splashing on yesterday towards an ending that would be neither expected nor timely.

A kid named Ricky Barnes, from whom greatness was predicted but hasn't been achieved, was the leader after a second round not completed until a third day. If you're mixed up, so is everyone.

Round two of a tourn-ament that began of a sort on Thursday was only headed to a finish yesterday. But when this 109th Open, being played at Bethpage's Black Course on Long Island some 30 miles east of Manhattan, actually ends is anyone's guess. The plan was to get those who made the cut back on the course to begin the third round before the thunderstorms or darkness, whichever came first, and then with luck complete it today.

Officials insisted, meanwhile, that a champion wouldn't be determined until a full 72 holes -- and maybe an 18-hole play-off were there a tie -- had been played "even if we have to go to Tuesday."

The good thing for the basic, boisterous New York crowd, was that Tiger Woods would go the full tournament. He arrived yesterday morning 12 shots behind Barnes, at four-over, and in danger of missing the cut in a Major for only the second time as a pro.

But Tiger, whose opening round consisted of six holes on Thursday, and another 12 on Friday, shot a one-under 69 yesterday for a three-over total of 143 to stay in the tournament, if not in contention. As a point of reference, the greatest halfway deficit overcome by a winner was Lou Graham, who was down by 11 in 1975 and then won in a play-off over John Mahaffey.

Woods, trying to be the first repeat US Open winner since Curtis Strange in 1988-89, was in the group with Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington and Masters winner Angel Cabrera. Harrington, who had three double bogeys in his first round, shot 76 for 152 to miss the cut, while Cabrera posted a 69 in his second round for 143, the same as Tiger.

Barnes, with a US Open 36-hole record score of 132, after a second round of 65, leads Lucas Glover, who shot 64 for 133 and third-placed Mike Weir, whose 70 left him a shot further back.

Phil Mickelson, performing admirably as he attempts to deal with the news of his wife Amy's illness, shot a level-par 70 to finish on 139. It could be said, though, that all the leaders got the luck of the draw, having played their entire first rounds and much of the second in sunshine on Friday, and then finished the second in benign conditions yesterday morning.

It was the rub of the green -- Tiger's threesome was in the other wave, the one that did get pounded by rain on Thursday before play was abandoned for the day. Barnes, 28, won the US Amateur Championship in 2002 and in 2003 was, at the University of Arizona, college player of the year and also finished 21st in the Masters. But he couldn't qualify for the PGA Tour, playing the secondary Nationwide Tour where last year he did well enough finally to get elevated to the big time.

"It got me ready to play,'' said Barnes, from Stockton, California. "And it humbled me over the last four years. I've grown up. I always thought after college I'd be out here right away."

Barnes, who had seven holes remaining in his second round when he arrived yesterday, hit 31 of 36 greens. His eight-under 132 was a shot better than the mark set in 2003 at Olympia Fields in Chicago by Jim Furyk, who went on to win.

"Obviously, at the start of the week,'' said Barnes, "you don't think that score is out there. But my ball-striking was outstanding. But if you would have told me I'd be eight under and only have a one-shot lead I'd have said you're crazy.'' Mickelson is the favourite son of these New Yorkers, who cheer him on like a football crowd. That his wife Amy has been stricken by breast cancer has only endeared Phil even more to the fans. "I love it here," he said. "If I can get my putter going the last two rounds I like my chances."

David Duval, who won the 2001 Open championship at Royal Lytham, sits on 137. In 13 tournaments this year he hasn't finished better than a tie for 55th.

Sergio Garcia, who played well at Bethpage in 2002, added a second consecutive 70 and Todd Hamilton, who suddenly has found his game after doing nothing since winning the Open at Royal Troon in 2004, is on 138 after a 71.

Scotland's Martin Laird just missed the cut after posting a 71 for 145.

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David Duval back for his second act

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- There are no second acts in American lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it, a generalization, hyperbole. David Duval is on stage once more, the script edited, the character unchanged. Raise the curtain.

Call it a comeback. That’s a more sporting term than second act. Call it a return. A renaissance, although in a way it’s been going for a while.

It’s just that on days such as Saturday, when Duval becomes a presence in a U.S. Open that has become beholden to the weather officials, we realize the man still is a great golfer. Still can play.

When the second round of this 109th Open ended Saturday, with officials hustling those who made the cut to start the third, trying to end the tournament on Sunday as scheduled, there was Duval tied for fourth place at 3-under par 137.

There was Duval, at age 37, saying, “I love playing the game. I love competing. But more than that, I’d really like for my wife and family to see how I can actually play the game. They haven’t seen me at my best, and I want them to.’’

We saw him. Saw him shoot a 59. Saw him ascend to the top of the world rankings. That was 10 years ago, when the part of golf that didn’t belong to Tiger Woods belonged to David Duval.

We saw Duval come close to winning the Masters a couple of times and heard him spill out his heart about the beauty of being in the hunt and then missing the prize.

We saw Duval at last conquer his demons and win a major, the British Open in 2001 at Royal Lytham St. & St. Annes, standing at the summit for which he had reached.

And then we saw Duval, the perfectionist, the intellectual, step away and literally move away, from the golfing mecca of Florida where he grew up to Denver and marry a woman who already had children to establish a life where the challenges had nothing to do with carrying a tee shot over a fairway bunker.

For various reasons that included back ailments and vertigo and a loss of interest, Duval and his game tumbled faster and farther than perhaps any top player. The golfer once No. 1 by last summer was ranked No. 1,087.

Then the climb back. He was only three shots out of the lead halfway into last year’s British Open before the wind and his errors created an 83. Painful, but not fatal. In fact, reassuring. He knew he still had it.

Now we know, too. “Patience is crucial in this game,’’ Duval reminded, “and I feel I have been patient for many years and continue to work hard. If anything, my patience is most tested over the last six, eight, 10 months, when I really felt like everything was falling together but nothing good was happening to me.’’

Duval’s formative years were difficult. At 9, he was the bone-marrow donor for his brother Brent, 12, who within weeks of the procedure died of aplastic anemia. David, it was said, blamed himself and grew even more inverted than he had been.

The death contributed to marital strife between David’s parents, who eventually divorced. By high school, Duval was a loner who, having been taught golf by his father, a pro, escaped into the game. He practiced by himself at the end of the range and once said his fondest memories as an adolescent golfer were of playing alone in heavy fog.

While Duval was a four-time All-American at Georgia Tech, he was known as Rock, both for his solid game and rough-edged personality. His intelligence -- David is one of the few people to understand the difference between “implied’’ and “inferred’’ -- manifests itself in arrogance, especially when pestered by journalists.

A sports psychologist contended that once Duval won the British, he was confronted with a vacuum with which it was hard to deal. It was as if Peggy Lee were singing, “Is that all there is?’’ That’s all there was, so David sought another life and found it.

He showed up at the 2004 U.S. Open, at Shinnecock, not having played a competitive round in seven months, the decision to use his exemption coming shortly before the Open as he sat in a golf cart at a course in Denver.

The exemption no longer exists. For the first time in 14 years, Duval had to qualify, which obviously he did successfully, a week and a half ago in Columbus, Ohio. Some golfers who had won major championships wouldn’t subject themselves to the pressure and, you could say, the ignominy.

David Duval was determined. He intends to get someplace close to where he used to be. He wants to perform that second act.

Tiger botches up a good round

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The day was less than enthralling. Tiger Woods made a mess of things. Not as much of a mess as one of his playing partners, Padraig Harrington, but that might not be a good way of measuring a bad round.

There he was Friday morning, Tiger even par with four holes remaining. Even par in the U.S. Open, a tournament where par makes you a contender and sometimes makes you a champion.

That’s the sort of competition Tiger likes, where every shot is precious, and you have to work and grind and struggle -- and think.

But what Tiger was thinking when he finished on Friday what he started on Thursday probably was X-rated stuff. He played the final four holes double-bogey, bogey, par and bogey, coming in with a 4-over 74.

Harrington, with three doubles, shot 76, while the third member of the group, Angel Cabrera, like the other two players a multiple major champion, had 74.

It was only late morning and, because of a schedule revised by the rain, Tiger was done for the day.

“As of the way I feel now, no, I don’t want to go back out there right now,’’ Tiger said when some wondered if at the early hour, before 11 a.m. EDT, he wished he could get to a second round already shoved to Saturday.

“Probably would be a few clubs light,’’ he added, the implication being that Woods might have busted a couple of them in anger.

Done for the day, but hardly for the tournament. Even 10 shots behind.

What we’ve learned is you never quit on Tiger Woods because he never quits on himself. Remember when he overcame that seven-shot deficit on the back nine at Pebble Beach in the 2000 AT&T, catching a bewildered Matt Gogel? Remember when he was three down with five to play the first round of the 2008 Accenture match play and beat J.B. Holmes, 1 up?

So to declare Tiger Woods finished after he played only 18 holes in a major championship that, because of the weather forecast, might never finish is premature at best and presumptive at worst.

And yet there he was, back to even par in the 109th U.S. Open at Bethpage’s Black Course after a birdie on 15. There he was, a gallery of rowdy New Yorkers shouting their encouragement.

And then, whoops, there he was, losing four shots the last four holes.

“Well,’’ he said, “I wasn’t playing poorly. You know, that’s the thing. I was even par with four to go, and I was right there where I needed to be, and then two bad shots and a mud ball later, I’m four-over par.’’

Already there had been a double-bogey, but that was Thursday, in the deluge, before play mercifully was halted with Woods, Harrington and Cabrera on the seventh green. Tiger bogeyed seven when play resumed under clear skies at 7:40 Friday morning, but birdies at 11 and 14 had brought him back to even.

“That was kind of a goal,’’ Woods explained. The goal evaporated.

He hit a bad tee shot on the 459-yard 15th, described by one and all as the most difficult hole on the course. “But I had a great lie and went for it. Plugged it in the face, took a drop (a free one, because the ball was ruled as embedded), hit a decent pitch -- but I didn’t think it would come all the way back to my feet like that -- blocked the first putt and hit a bad second putt.’’

Woods is defending champion. He is trying to become the first repeat winner in 20 years, since Curtis Strange in 1988-89. Woods is the favorite. But after the first round, Woods is a good distance behind. Then again...

More rain is coming. More pressure will be building. More double-bogeys will be recorded.

Nothing is certain. The USGA, which announced Thursday it wouldn’t honor Thursday’s tickets, even though play was halted and didn’t resume, on Friday said it would allow those tickets to be used Monday. If there is play Monday. And it appears there will be play Monday. And maybe Tuesday.

“Overall,’’ said Woods, “the golf course is playing difficult. I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing and hopefully clean up the round a little bit, drive the ball in the fairway and get a couple of breaks and not catch a mud ball. But if it dries out more, it will get worse.’’

Presumably Tiger Woods will get better. Presumably he won’t ruin a decent round by losing four shots to par in four holes.

He’s not giving up, not after one round of a major. He made a mess of things. He had two awful holes. Fifty hour holes remain. That’s more than enough for atonement. And victory.

RealClearSports: Open But Not Shut Case for Jeff Brehaut

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- It was golf's version of Waterworld, the non-Olympic 18-hole breast-beater stroke. No Michael Phelps. No Dara Torres. And if you were looking at the top of the leader board, no Tiger Woods, who told us in what wasn't breaking news, "It was pretty wet and windy.''

But there was a Jeff Brehaut, unexpected Jeff Brehaut, persistent Jeff Brehaut, upbeat Jeff Brehaut and, as anybody else who managed to get on the course Thursday during the first round of the splish-splash-I-ain't-taking-a-bath U.S. Open, a very damp Jeff Brehaut.

Jeff Brehaut, in only his second major in 27 years as a pro, in front of Tiger Woods and everyone else. If only temporarily.

"But it's still totally cool,'' said Brehaut, pronounced as the French would, "Bray-Oh.''

Asked if he'd ever been ahead of Tiger in a tournament before this one, Brehaut -- 46 and from Los Altos, Calif., down the road from San Francisco -- responded, "Yes, but not in a major.''

Particularly a major that virtually floated away to Long Island Sound. Especially a major in which nobody played more than 11 holes before the Bethpage Black course in places literally was underwater.

Tiger and his playing partners, Masters champion Angel Cabrera and PGA and British Open champion Padraig Harrington, made it six holes. Brehaut, in the first group off the 10th tee, got in 11, and he was 1-under par, while Tiger was 1-over.

When Brehaut, Greg Kraft and J.P.Hayes made it to their 11th hole, or the second at Bethpage, it was 10:15 a.m. EDT. It was also the end of the round. "It,'' Brehaut explained about Bethpage, "couldn't handle it any more.''

That Jeff Brehaut, a graduate of the University of the Pacific, 12-time failure at the PGA Tour qualifying school, has been able to handle it, meaning the struggle, is the real issue.

"Not everyone is a college All-American,'' he said, "and gets on Tour their first or second crack. And I'm living proof. I went to Q-School 13 times before I got through when I was 35. I played mini-tour golf the first four, five, six years. I played the Nike Tour, now the Nationwide Tour, for six straight years in the '90s. When I finally got on Tour it was a big deal.''

As big a deal as leading the Open, if it's not quite a full round of leading. As big a deal as holing a couple of shots from a bunker at the 9th hole back-to-back in Wednesday's practice round while fans waiting for Phil Mickelson applaud and scream.

"I was jumping up and down like Bob Tway when he beat Greg Norman," said Brehaut, referring to Tway's holing a shot off a bunker in the 1986 PGA. "I pumped my fist. I signed half an hour worth of autographs. Afterwards, I felt like I had just won the tournament.''

And a day later he was leading the tournament, if only through 11 holes.

Twenty-five years he was a professional golfer before qualifying for a major, the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. By a shot, he missed gaining exemption to last year's Open at Torrey Pines, the one Tiger Woods won on a bad leg.

Now Brehaut has returned.

"My journey is different from that of most guys,'' he conceded. Jeff has a family. Jeff has had some decent payoffs, his earnings now past $3.7 million, but there were months of driving with his family from one event to another with little progress.

"But it's been worth it. What kept me going? Desire. I love golf. This is what I always love to do. I like the competition. I like the camaraderie.''

Gene Brehaut, 76, Jeff's father, was out there slogging through the rough and rain, proud, delighted. "He was jumping out of his skin,'' said the son.

Jeff Brehaut rarely gets the spotlight. He stays back in the chorus, a necessity instead of a star. "A lot of us,'' he said without rancor, "have to be the guys everybody else beats up on.''

He almost left golf. Almost. An option was to flip houses, buy one cheap, fix it up, and sell it at a higher price. That was before all the foreclosures. That was before he regained his confidence in the early'90s.

That was before he played in his first U.S. Open.

The third round at Oakmont in 2007, as he was about to hole out for birdie at 18, Brehaut paused to watch Tiger drive from the adjacent 12th tee.

"I wasn't going to miss that opportunity," Brehaut said.

Two years later he had an opportunity to lead in another U.S. Open. He didn't miss that opportunity either.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009