By Dave Kindred, Contributing editor, Golf Digest
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Furyk stood on the 13th tee looking at a scoreboard among the cypresses. Little more than an hour to play. He saw that he led the U.S. Open by a shot. How must that feel? To have it there, in reach?
Furyk's eyes betrayed no emotion. Thousands of rounds had brought him there, tens of thousands of rounds in a life in golf. Now, six holes to play. He'd just walked off the 12th green. On that hole, he'd done the kind of stuff that wins Opens. After hitting three bad shots -- one caused him to slash a club through the air in anger -- Furyk knocked in a 35-foot putt for par. Men tough enough to turn bogeys into pars win U.S. Opens. Furyk had won the Open nine years ago. A pro 20 years, a Ryder Cup star, he belongs on any list of his generation's 10 best players.
Which is nice. It's good. And with an hour to play in the U.S. Open, on a one-shot lead, it doesn't mean diddly. You gotta hit the shots. Time is a vice, cranked tighter by the minute. Bobby Jones said there's golf and there's tournament golf. He loved the first, quit the second. Sometimes, in that vice, you have to remember. Breathe.
On the 13th, a par 3 playing 199 yards, Furyk saw his playing partner, Graeme McDowell, leave a 5-iron in a bunker short left. Furyk went with a 4-iron. But it, too, fell short. Maybe, on this day, when fog floated across Olympic Club like smoke, and when that fog was heavy with mist, maybe a Furyk 4-iron doesn't fly 199 yards. Then came a weak pitch and a bogey. In the nine minutes since Furyk studied the board, he'd lost the lead that he'd held nearly all day. A half-hour ahead, the young lion Webb Simpson, 26, four years a pro, had moved into a tie.
The vice was closing. As Furyk walked to the 16th tee, someone in the gallery shouted to him, "Driver's seat, baby!" Simpson had finished the tournament, one over par. Three holes to play, two of them par-5s, the 18th a short par-4, and Furyk needed to play them in one-under-par to win.
"There were probably six, eight guys today that felt like they were going to win the golf tournament," Furyk would say later. "I really felt like I had a lot of confidence in myself and a lot of belief in myself and you feel like you're going to win...." He also said, "It was my tournament to win."
But you gotta hit the shots.
On the 16th tee, Furyk walked the entire 99 yards that the teeing ground had been moved forward to reduce the hole to 571 yards. The USGA had informed players of the change. And though Furyk knew the shortening made it a different hole, though he knew it presented a different line of flight for the tee shot, he came to the tee confused. "I was unprepared and didn't know exactly where to hit the ball off the tee," he said. He had a 3-wood in hand facing a fairway that made an abrupt dogleg left. "I don't know what to say, other than there's no way anyone else in the field was prepared for the tee to be that far up. I just didn't handle it very well."
In the vice of time, if breathing is sometimes difficult, to hear Furyk describe his thinking on the tee is to understand that thought comes hard, too. "And I'm not sure I hit the wrong club off the tee, but probably hit the wrong shot . . . and that, probably as much as anything, forced me to make a poor swing." He also said, "But the rest of the field had that same shot to hit today and I'm pretty sure no one hit as sh--y a shot as I did. I did the worst job of handling it and I have no one to blame but myself. I should have hit a different shot off the tee, and, if anything, you need to miss that fairway to the right, never to the left. So it makes mine twice as bad."
He wanted to turn the 3-wood into the fairway running left. Confused, uncertain, he spun the tee shot into trees no more than 150 yards away. On good shots, the pros pose, holding the follow-through prettily; on this tee shot, Furyk let the 3-wood fall across his shoulders in sad, sudden, collapsing despair. His tee shot flew into the shadows of cypress trees and nearly out of bounds. Furyk wedged back to the fairway, but could do no better than a bogey.
Now, a shot down.
Now, he needed a birdie to tie.
But his 4-iron second shot to the par-5 17th came out weak. "A fluffy lie," he said. His pitch came up short. His birdie putt came up short.
Still a shot down.
With a wedge in hand from the 18th fairway, Furyk pulled the shot left of the green. When he saw what happened, he bent into a crouch, sitting on his heels. He put the shaft of the wedge between his teeth, for no reason and for every reason that a man does anything when he has failed to do what he most wanted to do. The wedge shot left Furyk with an impossible, half-buried lie in the bunker. He had no chance to get a sand shot near the cup. He ran it across the green into another bunker.
McDowell wasn't done. He had a long, downhill putt for birdie that would have gained him a tie with Simpson. As McDowell lined up the putt, there on the green's edge stood the forlorn Furyk. With a putter in hand, he made a full swing. Maybe he was thinking of the 16th tee. Maybe the 18th fairway. Maybe he just wanted to be somewhere else.
He called himself disappointed. "Very. Very." It had been a long, hard day. "You name a U.S. Open on any golf course that isn't hard to hold the lead." But he had it to win. "I'd take that position time and time again. You get me tied for the lead on the first tee on Sunday and give me a good start. Then I've got to make my game about putting the ball on fairways and greens and letting people chase me and have to do something special. And Webb did that."
Then, his voice flat, Furyk said, "I just wasn't able to hit that one good golf shot, that one great golf shot that I needed."