June 25, 2007

In the end, the USGA had its way

For an exercise so often portrayed as dull, what a scene it was. A helicopter, also wearing red Sunday, provided the only noise, humming while it hovered above the 18th hole at Oakmont CC, where Tiger Woods stalked. As if transfixed, spectators packing bleachers more than 400 yards away stayed seated, on the chance they could track that birdie putt he had to make. In front of them, hundreds more people stood, staring down a fairway flanked on the right by thick crowds, hugging the ropes, periscopes up. There surely were enough bodies framing this drama to fill the building for a Pittsburgh Steelers' game, but as they waited for the world's No. 1 player to push this 107th U.S. Open into overtime, it was so peaceful, you could have heard a ball drop.

And when it didn't, "The Sopranos" lost its lock on the month's most surprising conclusion. Angel Cabrera, who looks like he could fit right in at that New Jersey diner, had won. Even though they've eliminated thousands of trees at this regal course--trees that, by the way, would have precluded such panoramic views of the final round's final hour--the Oakmont logo featured a squirrel. Say what you will about how a blind one from Argentina found an acorn, just like a guy from Iowa stole a green jacket from Tiger's closet at the Masters. Experts who don't play conceded both majors to Woods after 54 holes because he was in the hunt, and hunting vulnerable prey. Well, Cabrera could make coffee nervous, but he could have vanished Saturday, when his round was interrupted by a rules official. A TV spy had called to say Cabrera's ball moved beneath a practice swing in a grassy ditch. Not the kind of thing you need to hear, or should be told, while still playing. He was cleared. He also shot 76.

__"There were so many high 70s and low 80s at Oakmont last week, it felt like a nursing home." __

A big bopper wasn't supposed to survive Oakmont, and if Woods had putted well, he wouldn't have needed the last one for a ticket to Monday. But the layout was not nearly as hospitable as the local folks, who are so friendly they don't belong in the Eastern time zone. Most golfers let the course play them. Unless you define hacking out of the hay to daylight a creative effort or a recovery shot, there wasn't much of either. Greens ran forever, like a Swiss watch or Johnny Miller's serial interviews. With the undulations and speed on those putting surfaces, Oakmont would be a brute with no rough whatsoever. The cant in the fairways spelled can't to the masses. Half the holes were less than 400 yards, yet still there were so many high 70s and low 80s, it felt like a nursing home. At least it didn't get silly, except for the pace of play. Forecasts of a 10-over champion abated, the USGA discovered water, and our nation's protectors of par got their second consecutive victor at plus-five.

"And fourth straight for the Southern Hemisphere," noted last June's champion, Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who didn't seem inclined to join the panic about Woods' sudden penchant for silver medals. "What's happening is freaking scary, if you ask me. I played with him two rounds at the PGA Championship last August, again the first two here, and he looks much more comfortable with the swing he and Hank Haney have been working on. The drives that were way off aren't anymore. There's more good bad ones, if you know what I mean. And if people think he's going to mellow when he becomes a father, that's crazy. He'll want to win even more for his kid. I'm telling you, the way he's hitting it: freaking scary."

Coach Haney will be happy with that appraisal, particularly after occasional epistles about how Woods with driver in hand has regressed since the two men have joined forces. Haney has charted the top players over the past five years, accuracy in one column, distance in the other. Without exception, including erstwhile short hitters on the PGA Tour, all have gained length and sacrificed accuracy. By any formula of determining where reward ceases and risk begins, Woods is near the top. He lost this U.S. Open because Cabrera posted bookend 69s, two of only eight rounds under par during the entire week.

What is the point of staging a championship Sunday during which the last four twosomes collectively shoot 40 over par? It's the USGA way. Walter Driver, the governing body's president who can strut even while standing still, deigned to share a room with scruffy media mongrels before the tournament. In his speech Driver declared that the previous two Opens--at Pinehurst and Winged Foot--had been "impeccable." This could be taken as bit of revisionist history, inasmuch as Driver was a spinmaster during the mess he precipitated in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills GC, where the course spun out of control. Only now, apparently, does Driver comprehend that that week was "peccable." Better late than never, but you know what they say around USGA headquarters. What's the difference between God and Walter Driver? God doesn't go around acting like Walter Driver.