Remembering Dad – A Letter from the U.S. Open

Remembering Dad – A Letter from the U.S. Open

We celebrate my Dad’s life tomorrow and Thursday, but for today, I thought you all might to reminisce with me in another way. Many Sundays when covering the U.S. Open, I’d write a Father’s Day piece as a letter to Dad. Here’s my favorite…

LA JOLLA, CA –

[Editor’s Note: Jay wrote this piece in real time, while watching the tournament. Over the course of the piece there will be references to events as they happened.]

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Dear Dad:

Happy Fathers Day. It’s Saturday at the U.S. Open and, same as always, I’m excited for the tournament, but sad because you’re not here. This event is always such a singular experience that I yearn to share it with you: to see your bright crystal blue eyes light up, to see that wide smile of wonder you get when something inspires you, and to see your eyebrows shoot through the ceiling when you say “Wow!” when something amazing happens. I miss you, Dad. I wish you were here.

I was chatting with Rand Jerris yesterday. You’ll know him as the man who moderates the interviews with the golfers after they finish playing their rounds, then he calls on the reporters to ask questions. Rand lamented the same thing: he never gets to see his kids on Fathers Day. He has three: Noah, Hope, and Ben. Noah is old enough to appreciate the tournament next year, so Rand told me he’s going to try to have his dad bring Noah to Bethpage. It did make me feel better to know I’m not alone in missing my family on the holiday.

Conversely, the nice thing about the tournament ending on Fathers Day is that it makes a special memory for some family; one golfer will never forget that Fathers Day as long as he lives and he’ll have a story for his dad or son that’ll live forever in golf. That gave me the idea of asking the players to tell me some stories about their dads or their sons. I got some good stories and hey, there’s a darn good tournament going on so I hope that through me, you’ll hear some good stories, and get a bird’s eye view of the tournament. Besides, you can print this out, and every time you read it, you can think of you and I and Fathers Day, and how much I love you, so here goes.

It’s been a much better tournament than I expected. Then again, the U.S. Open always is. Remember my first Open, at Pinehurst? I was so excited, just agog with nervous anticipation for covering my first big tournament ever, and it exceeded my expectations more than I ever could have imagined. They have golf in their DNA in Carolina. And better still, when you go there, you come back with ten friends. When the waitress, gas station attendant, and plumber have better interlocking Vardon grips than you do, you know you’re in Golftown, U.S.A.

Winged Foot was other-worldly, even before Phil’s supernova. Nowhere else has a more devastating confluence of history and misery. It’s where great champions go to die a bitter internment. I still crack up at mom calling me on my cell phone just before I was going to interview Phil after round four and shouting “TELL HIM I SAID HE’S AN IDIOT!” A lot of people felt that way, including Phil himself, but that’s a bit unfair. After all, Winged Foot is ruthless, even more so than Oakmont.

Sure, Oakmont was hard, but it was also antique. I mean that in the old English sense of the world – like a precious, priceless painting or vase. Not a relic, but a well-polished classic, something we learn something new from every time we examine it. Something we cherish. If ever there was a course that materializes from the mists of history, then spellbinds us with an exotic bouquet for one magical week, then vanishes mysteriously to hibernate and await a re-emergence, it’s Oakmont. By the way, it looked so much better with the trees gone: like an emerald-green ski slope, a grassy Whiteface Mountain, an iridescent gem radiating light in all its vibrance and purity.

But Torrey has surprised me at several turns. There’s better golf architecture out there than people think and the canyon and the ocean are gorgeous. It’s more of a cliff-top golf course than a links, but it has some great holes, the par-3s in particular. It’s holding its defenses better than most writers anticipated and without being tricked up. We were calling it Borey Pines and Snorey Pines, but with the excitement of this week, it’s been Glory Pines instead.

Moreover, everyone is impressed with how fair the set-up has been. I’d still rather play Bethpage Black, though: it’s only fifteen minutes away from me, it’s considerably cheaper, tougher, and it’s a more interesting design. Stem to stern, the Black is a stronger course. Holes at Torrey run straight or bend only slightly; there’s not many diagonal angles, dog-legs or strategic requirements. At Bethpage, the holes constantly shift; there’s great horizontal movement to the fairways, creating diagonal angles of attack. Bethpage has better greens as well. But, hey, Torrey’s one hell of a muni and Rees’s work did make her better than before, even though the green contours could be better.

You have to see the size of the operation they have here. A quarter of a million people were turned through the turn-styles this weekend. That’s too many. The course bottlenecks in several crucial places, like entrances and exits, due to the deep canyon that bisects the property. Then I went into the merch tent and thought I’d never get out again. They set it up like a maze to keep you inside so you’ll pay through the nose for gear, but I chose frugally. I bought a couple pins, a hat, and something for my best girl in New York. They have these U.S. Open at Torrey Pines teddy bears. I got the last one…number 400 out of 400, autographed by the maker.

I can hear you now: “How much did that cost?”

Then later, when going for an iced coffee, I ran head first into a marauding horde of philistines following the 1-2-3 pairing of Woods, Phil, and Adam Scott, and almost didn’t escape. I have to criticize the U.S.G.A. for that. Combine Phil’s gallery with Tiger’s gallery and try to have them all walk down intersecting dark alleys at the same time. One word comes to mind: Moooooooooooooooooooo! Besides, I liked the old way of British Open-U.S. Open-Masters Champion better. It was more dignified than this made-for-TV and the patrons comfort-be-damned walking menagerie.

I see why they did it. The U.S. Open is like a good soup: it needs to simmer a bit and cook for the flavors to blend. It always takes a while for the excitement of the tournament to build. The buzz every year is “Tiger-Phil,” and every year it’s been wrong. So this year, they manufactured Tiger-Phil at the course they both sort of call home and manufactured a day one and day two story line besides “the cut.”. I say let the tournament unfold like a good book. They haven’t needed any contrived pairings to get high drama the last few years, that’s for sure. With the exception of Chicago in 2003, pound-for-pound, the Open has been more exciting than any other major, a few masterpieces like the 2004 Masters aside.

Thursday, as usual, was a scramble to figure out who the new guys were. Friday players began to “identify themselves” as either contenders or also-rans, and now it’s late on moving day and Tiger being in the mix is making the tournament exciting. Anything can happen at anytime. We’re always on pins and needles.

The big story, (besides Tiger’s knee), is the set-up. We’ve complained for years that the Open all but eliminates greenside recovery shots. Geoff Ogilvy astutely and concisely summed it up: you hit your 60-degree lob wedge and nothing else. Well this year, with the “graded rough” – where the rough isn’t too bad if you’re just off the fairway, but deeper the further you are off-line – scores have been more reasonable than 5-over for a winning score.

It’s had another unintended effect though. Driving accuracy and greens in regulation are down. They usually hover around 65% and 57% for the entire field in the average U.S. Open, but that’s the average of the top ten after two rounds this year. (Gone are the days of David Graham at Merion where he hit all eighteen greens on Sunday). Though we have slightly lower scores, we’re not rewarding driving accuracy and GIR as much this year.

Look at these stats: we have twenty-two players averaging over 300 drives. Tiger and Dustin Johnson are essentially tied for first at 328. Scott, Garcia, Love, Casey, Andres Romero, and Cink are in the top dozen. Then you get guys like Oliver Wilson, Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, and Brett Quigley.

Excuse me but since when is it okay to let Quigleys and Swedes and Olivers average 300 yards?

Nevertheless Tiger is also top of the class or so in putting. He had twenty-five putts today despite hitting only 6 of14 fairways and 9 of 18 greens. Through three days he’s averaged 63% GIR, exactly 50% fairways hit, and 1.555 putts. Like he admitted to a guy at Royal Liverpool, (Hoylake to its friends), “I love flat greens.”

The other trade-off with rolling back the stringent, at times inflexible requirement of hitting fairways is that recovery shots are back in the mix, as well as a few birdies more and, accordingly, more excitement for the patrons. After all, these people pay good, green money for these tickets and they deserve excitement. They’ll get more this weekend. I can just feel it. The tension has been steadily building over the course of the day and…

HOLY COW, WOODS JUST PITCHED IN FOR BIRDIE ON SEVENTEEN FROM THE POULADINI (Italian for “spinach patch”), AROUND THE GREEN! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Did you see that?!? I was in the Media Center typing this to you when bedlam erupted. There is a thirteen second delay between this one radio guy – one guy out of two hundred plus in the room right now – and the rest of the TVs in the center, two gigantic Jumbotron screens on either side of the four hundred desks in our work room. For a good hour and a half now, we had all been working dutifully in relative silence. Suddenly we hear this shouting:

“OH MY GOODNESS! WHAT A SHOT FROM TIGER WOODS! IT’S IN THE HOLE! INCREDIBLE!”

Everyone was concentrating so hard, the room really regarded the interruption as an annoyance at first, as in “What? What is this shouting?! I’m trying to work!” Then it sunk in and, as one, we all looked at one of the two big screens and saw the slam dunk pitch-in. We all went “OOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Slam. Dunk. I’m impressed. Every time he does something like that, he wins.

Oh…there’s goes the roar of the gallery from eighteen. They just changed the scoreboard.

He’s gonna be in the last group, and he’s tied for the lead with the birdie-able 18th ahead. If he wins once at a venue, he frequently repeats: St. Andrews, Augusta, Sawgrass (remember the ’94 Amateur), Torrey, Firestone, Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black (next year, just scrape his name on the trophy twice tomorrow), Muirfield Village, Bay Hill, Medinah, stop me anytime.

I’d tell you more about the tournament, but you saw this opera before, it’s a rerun. Tiger takes a victory lap in the sun. He might even wave to Phil from the first tee as Mickelson walks down eighteen. So I’ll get to the real reason for this letter. I owe you everything I’m celebrating today, because if you hadn’t taught me to love God, family, and golf, I wouldn’t be here on the edge of the world at this gorgeous union of sea, sky, and God’s green Earth watching Woods put a bow on a Father’s Day present to himself and his family. So what I’ve decided to do is ask the player’s about their favorite moments with their dads or sons and reminisce about some of mine with you.

Do you remember when I was three years old? How the access road actually cut through the municipal golf course and mom would wait by the fifteenth green in that ugly Pinto she drove, just so I could run out onto the green with a pitcher of iced tea for you, Uncle Marcie, Eddie Byrne, and Vinnie Mazzie? I was so happy just to get to stay with you and putt the past four greens and then go get a hot dog with long hot peppers.

I remember Uncle Marcie too. Who could forget?! Talk about quitting golf in spectacular fashion. He walked off the second fairway, crossed Mohawk Street, climbed over the fence that guarded the city reservoir, walked to the water’s edge – ignoring everyone’s questions of “Marcie? Where are you going?!” – and then threw the entire bag, the ball, and finally, with a flourish, his hat, into the reservoir and never hit another golf ball again as long as he lived! It’s still the talk of the club after all these years.

Oh no, there goes that guy again…

“AND IT’S INTO THE HOLE! AND TIGER WOODS IS INTO THE LEAD!”

Now we have thirteen seconds to look at each other. We know what’s coming. Yup…there goes the roar again.

Now you should hear the stony silence in the media center. Let type this out so I have it straight on paper: 66-foot eagle putt, then slam-dunk, birdie pitch-in, then an eagle to close out the round, playing eighteen like it was nothing. The lightning crashed and the thunder rolled; the seas boiled and the skies fell. Impressive…most impressive.

One of my colleagues from the magazine just walked by me: an old-school guy. I read him as a kid. Another golf writer asked us both, “You ever seen this [expletive deleted] before?” Without missing a beat, both he and I snapped back, “Yes!”

The rest of today was wonderful. I went to dinner with a gaggle of golf writers I like and respect. They’ve been kind enough to take me under their wing and show me the ropes. In return, I write my stories and they like them. I see what I want to grow into as a golf writer in them, just like I’m proud to have grown into the man you made me, dad. They remind me of you, dignity, grace, and class all the way.

We all went out for Italian at Villa Capri: two paesans, (Marino and I), the tallest potato you ever met, (John calls himself that) and I dunno what Mikey is, but he’s funny. Between us we ate the place dry of bread and Bolognese sauce. I had Arrabiata (for you scoring at home that’s “angry sauce,” named for the red pepper which spices it), and nearly burned off somebody’s tongue offering them a taste, but I loved it. We had hoped to go with three fine lads from Ireland, but Padraig Harrington fell off the leaderboard with a resounding thud, so they had to work till midnight. Then I went back to the hotel.

The coverage has been non-stop, every channel, you can’t get away. It’s so mind-boggling, I couldn’t even escape it on “Channel Ocho.” You know Channel Ocho – that Mexican sitcom/variety show with the two guys that dress up in bee costumes? They came on TV rubbing their butts and screaming, “Hasta la bustamente andale arriva si! Tiger Woods una patada mis nalgas!” [Holy smokes! Tiger Woods kicked my ass!]

Anyway, I fell asleep writing and now it’s Sunday, Championship Sunday…

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Jay Flemma