June 9, 2008

It's A Humbling Game

Celebs, amateur take on Torrey Pines in Golf Digest's U.S. Open Challenge and discover Tiger Woods was right: Breaking 100 is no mean feat

Timberlake (right) and Romo congratulated Atkinson on No. 1.

Timberlake (right) and Romo congratulated Atkinson on No. 1.

It lasted longer than Justin Timberlake's childhood stint as a Mouseketeer, but no less a visionary than sommelier Greg Norman observed that this particular round of golf should be savored, not gulped. In fact, the Great White Shark cited Golf Digest's U.S. Open Challenge last Friday as "one of the most important events in the game's history," because it connected the amateur with the professional as never before. Norman also hailed John Atkinson, the most civilian member of a group commissioned to tour Torrey Pines South only days before the national championship. "He played for 26½ million people," said The Shark. "That's how many golfers there are in America, and he was there for them."

Norman did not tee it up with an eclectic foursome, but rather caddied for Matt Lauer, co-host of the "Today Show" on NBC, which along with the USGA, cosponsored the happening. How do you tip Norman? Do you give him another airplane or another hangar? Neither. "Greg and I have been friends a long time," said Lauer, who will be in the wedding party June 28 when Norman marries Chris Evert. Not to be outdone for a superstar looper, entertainer Justin Timberlake hired famous swing guru Butch Harmon. "We've had three or four lesson sessions," said Timberlake. "He's a great teacher." Harmon returned the compliment, with a caveat. "And Justin's a great student," said Butch, slowly removing his bib, "but I don't think I'll be doing this again."

John Atkinson

Tony Romo, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, also partook, along with a spiffy 2.2 index. But as Norman was saying, no sane male imagines himself breaking the huddle, taking snaps and being smothered by NFL behemoths. Yet, we all lapse into periods of irrational behavior and fantasize about taking ball and stick in hand to approximate what tour golfers do. Tiger Woods started this movement when he volunteered during last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont that no 10-handicapper could break 100 there or at any other venue of its kind. That begat the Golf Digest contest, and Atkinson's "yes-I-can" essay was selected from 56,374 entries.

"Saturday mornings at your hometown muny, no rough, with your mates, gimme putts," mused Norman, by way of firmly, yet politely, implying that Atkinson was dreaming because we all dream. Still, the message taken from the Challenge was beyond the obvious as stated by Timberlake -- that tour pros are "inhuman, the way they stripe it." No, the overriding memorandum from Torrey Pines was that golf at once humbles and unites. The game is bigger and tougher than us, but when we understand that we all share this hobby of shanking, the frustration about failure is diminished and the joy of participating increases exponentially. "Had the time of my life," said Atkinson after shooting 114.

Other scores weren't quite as high, but highlights were few. There were no birdies among the foursome, numerous bogeys and countless "others" despite calm weather and reasonable pins. The round consumed six hours, 15 minutes. Officials didn't put the foursome on a clock; they used a sundial. When NBC editors boil the procedings down to a 47-minute show before the U.S. Open on Father's Day, they'll need the Rose Mary Woods maneuver to erase tapes. But that was the idea. When the four players were taken to a meeting the previous night -- oddly enough, after cocktail hour had begun -- Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, reminded that "we will replicate strict U.S. Open conditions." Each golfer would wear a microphone, but Davis assured them that no embarrassing audio would be aired on the delayed telecast. "What about the video?" inquired Timberlake, who wears his fame well.

Greg Norman, Butch Harmon, Matt Lauer and Justin Timberlake

Romo expected to do better than 84, but even with his arms that look like your legs, he struggled at carving out of the rough. Timberlake (6.0 index), black porkpie hat atop a thick orange belt, had 98 with a 10 on No. 9. He was ecstatic to meet Norman then Fred Couples, who actually got off his sofa in Palm Springs and drove to San Diego to watch. Lauer (6.2) sank a 20-footer on No. 18 to post 100. "Pros recover from trouble," he rued. "We compound it. Tiger did not make an outrageous statement." Timberlake concurred. "It would be like Tiger showing up at Madison Square Garden," he said. "My band is there, the drums, the audience and I give him my playlist and say, 'Good luck.' "

Atkinson, 39, studied journalism at the University of Nebraska, but he got real smart real fast. "Didn't see any money in it," he said. With renowned sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella as his celebrity caddie, Atkinson attempted to finesse Torrey South with hybrids off the tee. He opened with four consecutive bogeys, prompting cheers from 60 or so friends and family members among a limited gallery. He faded thereafter, but refused a cart for the back nine. A non-smoker, Atkinson has inoperable lung cancer. He has lost 35 pounds, but not an ounce of zeal. "You look up, you see your three children, your wife, your parents, the ocean ... " he said, not finishing his sentence.

The rich and famous folks in this gathering were without ego. Timberlake, who looks like an athlete, was not too exhausted to sign autographs and join a lawn party. Norman, his private plane ready, was there, too. Same with Lauer and Romo, who delayed his flight back to Texas a day. Atkinson made the rounds, smile on his face and beverage in hand. There's something about this game of golf. "Wonderful experience," said his father, Ed. "John ran into Justin Timberlake the other day, and they hooked up for a practice round, like old friends. See them laughing, giving each other knuckles and hugs out there? Wonderful. John is in the late stages, you know. People in his shape have a 5 percent chance of living five years. John's answer to that? 'Why can't I be in that 5 percent?' "