Monday, June 17, 2013

Promise denied, promise fulfilled at the U.S. Open

The PGA tournament is the last of the four major tournaments in the golf season, and it's never had the same kind of panache and excitement as the previous three. The Masters is like a spring awakening, the only major held yearly at the same course, where so many golf fans know every hole as if we've played it ourselves. The US Open and the British Open are different tests -- the former demanding accuracy and the ability to scramble out of deep rough; the latter requiring great shotmaking on open, links-style courses, with nary a tree in sight. By the time the PGA rolls around in mid-August, most of us would rather just play golf than watch it.

But at the 1999 PGA at Medinah, a 19-year old Spaniard announced his arrival on golf's finest stage, declaring his worthiness with a dramatic shot from the base of a tree that somehow found its way to the green. Sergio Garcia was in a duel with Tiger Woods, who at that time was the winner of just one major, the 1997 Masters, when he was barely legal. I was on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and for every moment when we weren't in rehearsal or performing, I was glued to the telly in Dublin hotel.

So this PGA was unlike many before and many that followed, because there was so much promise in the air. After Nicklaus/Palmer there was Nicklaus/Trevino and then Nicklaus/Watson, but after his dramatic (and last major) victory at the 1986 Masters, Jack moved on, and many of us moved on with him. The golfing scene had cooled considerably.

Then Tiger arrived and, close on his heels, Sergio Garcia.

Garcia is still a young man today, his enormous gifts still well intact. In the Ryder Cup, Garcia is characteristically brilliant in the team format. Sadly, when he's on his own, he's in a constant battle with himself. We want to root for him, because we love to see great shotmaking. He's had trouble with his putting, but more than anything, Garcia has a unique proclivity for getting in his own way. He's 32, and it already feels like he's past his prime.

At the 2002 US Open at Bethpage, Garcia displayed an annoying habit of gripping and regripping his club while addressing his ball, such that rude spectators would count out loud, "1, 2, 3 . ." for each time he did it. At the 2007 British Open, he spit into the bottom of the cup after a 3-putt bogey. Earlier this year, at the The Players Championship -- where he won memorably in 2008 with a brilliant shot to the island green at 17 -- he hit three balls into the water on the last two holes, catastrophically knocking himself out of the lead. Moments later at a press conference, he insinuated that his difficulties were caused by improper on-course protocol from Woods. Whatever Tiger may have done -- and I wouldn't put it past him, given his arrogance and gamesmanship -- it certainly did not warrant Garcia's racially insensitive remarks.

Like Garcia, Justin Rose, also 32 (or soon to be), announced himself to the golf world as a teenager around the same time. At the age of 17, he holed a wedge from the fairway on the last hole of the 1998 British Open, finishing in fourth place. With Nick Faldo at the end of his fine career, England was united in placing their hopes in Rose as the heir apparent.

After turning pro, Rose missed 21 consecutive cuts. He won a couple of tournaments in his native South Africa, but his struggles continued. After moving stateside and dedicating himself to the PGA tour, he finally broke through in 2010, and since then has won at least one tournament every year. With his win yesterday at the US Open, he has joined golfing greats Lee Trevino (1971) and Ben Hogan (1950) among other great US Open winners at Merion. His win may not have been as dramatic -- Lee beat Jack in an 18-hole playoff, and Ben needed a late one-iron on a string to get himself in position for his playoff victory. Like Garcia (and Hogan), Rose is not a great putter; he 3-putted four times during the tournament. But he was still good enough to outlast Jason Day and Phil Mickelson, who thrilled the galleries with an eagle 2 on the 10th. But this and a lone birdie were not enough to overcome several bogeys on the finishing holes. His 43rd birthday would end with a record 6th second place finish at the U.S. Open.

Rose will never be a household name like Garcia. He lives his life quietly, without fanfare, without controversy. And he has something that still eludes Garcia -- a major championship victory.

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