July 16, 2008

Big smiles for a feel-good moment

Our group takes on Torrey Pines for the U.S. Open Challenge and comes away battered but unbowed

John Atkinson (center) shares a laugh with Tony Romo (left) and Justin Timberlake. Photos: Friday's Contest Round More Photos: Thursday's Practice VIDEO: The foursome prepare

John Atkinson (center) shares a laugh with Tony Romo (left) and Justin Timberlake.

Photos: Friday's Contest Round

More Photos: Thursday's Practice

VIDEO: The foursome prepare

John Atkinson has a beautiful smile.

It spreads wide across the narrow face of the 39-year-old father of three, who has lost 35 pounds since March 2007, when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

Atkinson's smile and spirit, along with the guts and poise displayed by fellow participants Matt Lauer, Justin Timberlake and Tony Romo, will be the enduring legacy of the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge. Played at Torrey Pines the week before the 108th U.S. Open, it was an amazing event.

The premise of the challenge: Take an average golfer in the high single-digit-handicap range and put him on a U.S. Open course under the extreme conditions -- same tees, fairway width, rough, flagstick locations and green speed -- faced by the world's greatest golfers in the most unforgiving of the four major championships. Add advance publicity, television cameras and a gallery of several thousand. Then see if he can break 100.

Well beyond the expectations of the partners in the event -- Golf Digest, NBC and the USGA -- the idea hit a rich vein of curiosity. It didn't hurt that the genesis was Tiger Woods opining at Oakmont last year that a 10-handicapper couldn't break 100 on an Open setup. And the fact that Torrey Pines' South Course, approaching 7,600 yards, was the longest in the championship's history, added gravitas.

Golf Digest received an astounding 56,374 essays from amateurs who wanted to be chosen, and Greg Norman, Butch Harmon and Bob Rotella signed up to caddie.

The designated foursome -- Atkinson (8.1 Index), Lauer (6.2), Timberlake (6.0) and Romo (2.2) -- would be putting themselves on the line on 500-yard par 4s without the protections amateur golfers take for granted: mulligans, Equitable Stroke Control, funny drops, Xs and gimmes. "I'm sure these guys are pretty good golfers," said Fred Couples, who attended the event as a sports fan, "but the shock of how hard the course is could get them panicky, and that's when they could start making anything. It's kind of scary to watch."

When the contestants gathered at a dinner the night before the competition, NBC's Roger Maltbie answered moderator Dan Hicks' question about what he was expecting by gravely intoning, "And now hitting his seventh shot, Matt Lauer . . . "

Norman provided some nitty-gritty. "When you walk on the first tee tomorrow, you won't enjoy it," he said. "Your heart rate will be about 182, and when you reach down there to put the ball on the tee, your hand will be shaking. It's gonna happen. I don't care how many 'Today' shows you've done, I don't care how many concerts you've done, I don't care how many 40-yard touchdown passes you've thrown, it's gonna happen."

And indeed, the next day reality hit when official Open starter Ron Read tersely announced, "From Shelby Forest, Tenn., Justin Timberlake. Play away."

Timberlake, a good athlete well-coached by Harmon, made a smooth swing and hit a good drive about 240 yards just off the fairway.

Lauer had the tough opening-tee-shot experience that his caddie, Norman, had warned about, sniping one into the left rough. "When I hit that first shot, I was startled," he said after the round. "Then it snowballed."

Atkinson was the freest starting out. Although a member-guest last year was the only other time he had played in tournament conditions, the sales representative for a medical-device company wasn't nervous. "The pressure of the situation has really dropped off for me," he said in the days leading up to the challenge.

"What is important to me now wasn't important to me last year." His plan was to hit a hybrid off the tee to get the ball in the fairway, reach the par 4s in three shots and try to two-putt for bogeys. With a long, graceful swing that had nonetheless lost some of its speed in the preceding months, Atkinson hit his first drive down the middle and executed perfectly to bogey the first four holes. "He totally stayed in the moment," said Rotella, bestowing his profession's ultimate compliment.

As for Romo, it was immediately clear that he was in a different league. A lifelong golfer with the grace of a natural athlete, he exhibited a controlled, powerful swing. The 84 he shot was about the worst he could have scored.

Not one birdie was recorded, and only two putts of more than 10 feet were holed. The only sustained cheers came from Atkinson's entourage of 60, many from back home in Omaha. The pace of play was glacial, the round taking 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Except for Romo, breaking 100 was looking like a mirage after the front nine. Atkinson made a quintuple bogey on the fifth hole and then began to find the rough, from which he lacked the swing speed to significantly advance the ball. And Timberlake met disaster on the par-5 ninth, where he pushed his drive into a maintenance yard and took four putts for a 10.

But Lauer and Timberlake are big-time performers in their fields, and they raised their games on the back nine. On the par-5 18th, Lauer holed the longest putt of the day, a 20-footer for par to shoot 100. "It was a humbling experience," he said, "but I was happy with the way I came back a little."

Timberlake came to the last needing a bogey to break 100. After a straight drive and solid long iron left him a 124-yard third over water, he hit a wedge to 25 feet and two-putted. "I can't believe what I just did, because I was putting so much pressure on myself that last hole," he said afterward. "That's one of the coolest things I've ever done."

For all the anticipation, what was learned? Although there is no doubt that such events should foster appreciation for the abilities of top professionals, it's also true that pros underestimated what a good weekend golfer can do. The biggest separating factor? Even more than the greens, the ability to handle the rough.

Of course, everyone came away learning from the highest scorer. "The greatest thing about John is, there is no obstacle," Timberlake said after Atkinson's 114. "He just lives life to the fullest." At Torrey Pines, the man with the beautiful smile lived especially big.