2002 U.S. Open
Dave Tutelman - 6/18/2002

On the day before the start of the US Open at Bethpage Black, my friend Bill Armstrong emailed me that he had an extra ticket to the final round and would I like to buy it from him for face value. That was a no-brainer; almost instantly we had agreed to travel together to the course on Sunday. There was an added bonus when he got back to me on Saturday with word of two more tickets going begging; the result was the addition of my younger son Dan and his friend Mike to the expedition.

Here are my impressions and recollections from the day...

The star of the show was not the players nor the competition, but the golf course. Bethpage Black is impressive! No, more than that; it's scary. I'm not anxious to play it; I don't have the game for it. I went to the tournament primed by friends' experiences at pro events; I expected to be impressed with how easy they make the game look. Well, it didn't happen that way. The course made the game look very hard, even for the best players in the world.

  • We knew the rough was nasty when we watched John Daly in the first pairing dig his ball out of it on the fourth hole. He hit the right rough with his drive, and knew he had no prayer of going for the green. His play was to lay up to the second level of fairway about 130 yards away. He took a mighty swing, and advanced it barely 70 yards, just barely clearing the bunkers and landing in the tall fescue.
  • If that wasn't enough, we watched Brad Faxon -- with one of the best short games around -- play from the deep greenside rough. On the par-3 eighth, he put it just 15 feet from the pin, but two feet off the green. Unfortunately, this was very deep rough. His first attempt to pitch out was a whiff; the ball didn't even move. He eventually walked off with a double-bogey 5.
  • BTW, several hours later, Faldo got up and down from almost the same spot. He thought it was so hard that he went over and stomped on the grass after he finished playing out the hole. Funny! (I think this was on the TV coverage, too; the crowd really appreciated it.)
  • Not only was the rough deep and thick, but it was everywhere. You've come to expect narrow fairways at the US Open, so you have to be accurate to avoid the rough. But at the Black, you have to be LONG and accurate. On most holes, you had to carry 200-250 yards to the start of the fairway. It was amazing Corey Pavin made the cut, because there were quite a few holes where his drive was not long enough to get to the fairway.
  • We thought this was a special US Open layout. But we talked with several locals who play Bethpage from time to time, and they assured us that the rough was just as high and just as thick throughout the year. The fairways might be a bit wider, though not much and not all of them. And the carries from tee to fairway aren't much shorter, if at all, on the public course. I think the tall fescue was new, but it will probably stay to grace the course.
  • While thinking about rough this high and thick on a public course, I wondered how that would affect pace of play. Remember, the pros have marshals to note where the ball lands and mark it with a little yellow flag. Daily players have to find their own balls. How hard is that? Twice, I saw marshals, who were THERE when the drive thudded into the rough, have to walk a back-and-forth search pattern to locate the ball so they could place the flag. They couldn't see it until they were on top of it.
  • The fifteenth hole didn't look all that nasty on TV, but that was due to TV's inability to do justice to the vertical. (In fact, there's a lot more vertical on many of the holes than the impression you got from TV.) Once you come to the end of the flat part of the fairway, it's straight up the hill. Looking up from the bottom of the fairway, to the grandstand behind the green, you wonder where the tram or chairlift is to take you up there.
  • The seventh is a 489-yard par-4. (Well, let's be honest, even though the USGA isn't. It's a par-5 every other week of the year.) Dan looked at it from the tee and asked, "Where's the green?" It's one of those holes where you tee off over a hazard to a fairway that slants away to the right. You can bite off as much of the huge bunker (the hazards are not water on this course, except for a small pond on #8) as you think you can carry. Even after we had walked quite a ways down along the sand trap, Dan was still asking, "Where's the green, already?"
  • The players had noted in interviews that the course drained well; it played Saturday as if there had been no rain Friday, even though it had poured all day. No such luck for the gallery paths through the rough and the woods. From the moment we stepped off the shuttle bus, we were walking in mud. Golf shoes with softspikes would have been the recommended footwear. There were places that were so muddy they were dangerous. The spectator path along the steep downhill eighth hole pops immediately to mind. I almost wiped out several times while picking my way down, and the others around me were in a similar predicament. We were on the hillside near that green when Tiger's gallery arrived; it was a pileup waiting to happen -- and you didn't have to wait long. The shrieks from the path left little to the imagination.

The second-place attraction was still not the players; it was the crowd. This was not a golf crowd; it was a New York sports crowd. They were polite enough, in that they were dead silent as soon as a player addressed the ball. But otherwise, there were wisecracks, chants, dissing the police there to keep order -- at least when the orders didn't seem logical. New Yorkers will NOT follow rules for the sake of following rules; there has to be a reason. There was one time that I observed when security tried to enforce an illogical rule. But, for the most part, the security was very well planned and executed, and the crowd cooperated almost without exception.

Even the TV announcers at Bethpage were saying the crowd was "different". But (1) they didn't detail what the difference was, and (2) they attributed it to the "public course" aspect -- "a lot of the folks in the gallery play this course all the time". Actually, they didn't have a clue! There just weren't that many in the gallery who play Bethpage Black on a regular basis. Some, of course, and they weren't hard to find. But they were probably well under 10% of the gallery, and they weren't the ones who were "different". The real difference was that it was a New York baseball/football/basketball/hockey crowd, they knew the golf etiquette (and, by and large, observed it), but retained their character as a general sports crowd.

A few specifics about the fans' behavior:

  • It was not a Tiger crowd. Tiger's fans were the thousands that followed him around the course. Most of the rest of the gallery were Mickelson fans, though they also gave enthusiastic encouragement to Mayfair and Faldo. And, of course, there was the Daly crowd. Except for the latter, I don't think I heard "you da man" more than twice all day.
  • Interesting one about "you da man." We were waiting for Daly to drive to the fourth fairway. A few feet away, a fan called over the Japanese TV cameraman. (The corps of photographers following Daly and Tiger were enormous.) He asked the photog, "How do you say, 'You da man' in Japanese? I already know it in Korean for Choi and French for VanDeVelde". After he finally got the surprised cameraman to understand what he wanted, he got an answer. Then he got paranoid. "How do I know that's really 'You da man?' You might have told me something obscene or insulting that will get me beaten up when I yell it." You can't please some people.
  • It was most certainly not a Sergio crowd. There was a strong anti-Nino sentiment, that was completely deserved IMHO. (But then, I'm originally a New Yorker myself.) Sergio did at least two things that turned the crowd against him this week:
    • His regripping slowed play and annoyed everybody -- including the golfers playing with him as far as anyone could tell. By midday Sunday, many in the gallery were softly counting waggles. While Sergio could not have heard one fan counting under his breath, I'm sure he heard the hundreds that were counting in unison. BTW, I counted 32 waggles for his drive on the ninth hole. As I saw on the tape of the TV coverage, Johnny Miller was also counting, and noting the time he spent on it -- which was often 30 seconds or more.
    • Garcia's crybaby comments about play not being stopped on Friday were completely uncalled-for... and he never apologized for them. He actually said to the press that if Tiger had been playing in the rain on Friday afternoon instead of the morning, the officials would have stopped play. The fact is that the average scores in the afternoon were LOWER than those in the morning; Sergio just didn't get the job done as well as Tiger did in demonstrably worse conditions.
  • There were lots of demonstrations of how pro-Mickelson the crowd was:
    • Whenever the scoreboard started to change, there was always a buzz. (There were scoreboards on every hole, visible from the green and sometimes the tee as well.) If it was a Tiger bogey or Phil birdie, it would set off a tremendous roar. A Tiger birdie would cause mixed cheers and groans, and a Mickelson bogey nothing but groans.
    • When Phil arrived at the eighth green, he had a 25-foot birdie putt that had been missed all day. A woman behind the green called out, as he fixed his ball mark, "Straighter than you think, Phil!" That was the only coaching from the crowd I heard all day. Anyway, he made the putt, and the gallery absolutely ROARED! As he walked off the green, the crowd broke into "Happy Birthday to you." It WAS Phil's birthday, BTW. Fans were wishing him happy birthday everywhere on the course, and this was the first gallery that sang to him... but not the last.
  • During the weather delay, we moved to the fourteenth hole. It is a short par-3, short enough for the fans to line it almost all the way around. Now remember that this is a New York sports crowd, not a golf crowd, and there was no action going on, even though the rain and thunder had stopped. The natives were getting restless...
    • The fans started doing the wave. The marshals on the tee were initiating each wave to go around the hole. At some point, those in the right-hand grandstands didn't continue the wave. The rest of the gallery booed them every time that happened. Just like a baseball, football, or soccer game.
    • Who should show up at that moment but Rudy Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York. He got lots of cheers as he walked through the gallery.
    • Eventually, Faldo and Harrington came out to the green and replaced their marks with golf balls. But the horn hadn't blown yet, so they could not resume play. The gallery started chanting, "Blow the horn, blow the horn." After maybe a minute of this, Faldo raised his hand in a pantomime of someone pushing the button of an air horn. Funny! The crowd picked it up instantly. At least a hundred fans simultaneously made a loud beeping noise to go with Faldo's gesture.
    • When the horn actually sounded, the cheers were comparable to those for a change in the leaderboard. But they quickly died down to the level of a courteous gallery when the players addressed their putts.
  • When Mickelson got to the fourteenth, there was a lot of cheering. He lined up his putt and addressed the ball, and the gallery complied with perfect silence. At that moment, one of the scoreboards at a hole across the road (probably 16 or 17) was updated to show the birdie that Phil had gotten on the par-5 thirteenth. From across the road came a chant, "mick-el-SON! mick-el-SON!" that could be heard all over the course. He backed off without pulling the trigger, and waited to putt until the chant had stopped.
  • The big galleries were The Tiger Troop, of course, but also the crowds following Mickelson, Daly, and Greg Norman. There were also smaller, specialized galleries. For instance, a small cadre of Frenchman followed VanDeVelde; the most vocal of them had a tricolor flag on attached to his hat, blowing in the wind, and he was constantly shouting encouragement (in French-accented English!!!) to "Vanny".
Well, yes, there WAS a competition and there WERE players. I won't say much about this. If you want to see the players and competition in a major, stay home and watch it on TV. At the course, you'll get a feel for what's going on, but you won't see a significant percentage of the action, and your info will usually be several minutes old. Rather than taking the time to review what you already knew about the players and the event, I'd like to say a few words about our viewing strategy. Actually, we didn't start out with a strategy; it just evolved. But it's worth noting what we did, because it worked for us.
  • We walked the course twice: once with the early groups, starting with the first group out (John Daly and amateur Kevin Warrick) and later with the final groups that actually had a chance to place well.
  • The first circuit of the course, we weren't trying to follow any particular pair; we tried out spots for watching, and found some good ones. At each spot we found, we stayed for a few pairings (anywhere from two to five pairings) before moving down the course. We remembered the best viewing spots, especially those that might not be occupied with full-time "squatters" later in the day. Of course, in the process we had a lot of fun watching top golfers cope with a very hard course.
  • We did not expect to be able to find a seat in the stands behind any of the greens later; that was an accurate prediction. But it wasn't a problem. The two times during the first circuit that we did find good seats (at seven and seventeen), Dan and Mike got bored of sitting almost instantly and wandered around. This was not a problem either; Bill and I used them as advance scouts for the next position; they would come back and tell us where we were going next.
  • It's worth noting that the grandstand behind eighteen was full long before Tiger and Sergio even teed off. If you want to see the putting on 18, you will have to forego seeing the course and resign yourself to sitting in one place for 5 or 6 hours. If you did that, you'd have missed the two biggest attractions: the course itself and the crowd out on the course. (The audience in the seats at 18 were more like a golf gallery than those either sitting or standing at the outlying holes.)
  • From our seats at the seventeenth, I was able to watch Tiger and Sergio tee off through my binoculars. Brief digression: I did use the binoculars that I brought, but nobody else was really interested in using them. I probably do have worse eyesight than the boys, but I also think the scopes added to my enjoyment of the event.
  • Anyway, when the final group teed off, we started our second circuit of the course. We hopped to a favorite viewing spot on the fourth hole in time to catch Faldo and Harrington, the fourth-from-last pairing. We stayed there long enough to watch the final four groups play through. Tiger's gallery was HUGE (but you knew that), but we already had our prime places by the time they arrived.
  • Each time Tiger and Sergio passed us, we would jump ahead 3-4 holes to a predetermined viewing spot, usually just in time to watch Faldo and Harrington. So we had a sampling of the action of the leaders, and the sampling was at points of the course that we felt offered good viewing.
  • I think this was a very successful strategy. I've already said why a single-hole philosophy would not have been the best. It's probably obvious why trying to follow the lead group would be even worse. There were 50,000 spectators on the course that day, and at least 10,000 of them were in the Tiger Troop. I doubt many of them saw much of anything. We, OTOH, watched Tiger play 4-5 holes from very good vantage points. Also, since Dan chose spots near the path to the next tee, we were up close and personal to Tiger -- and all the other leaders -- for a few seconds several times.
  • While we're on the subject of famous golfers walking close to the gallery in the narrow roped passages from green to tee, it is worth noting the difference in demeanor from one to another:
    • Tiger, of course, was focused. Eyes straight ahead, no expression on his face save concentration.
    • Others also looked straight ahead, most in concentration. But Sergio's unwillingness for eye contact with the gallery seemed more a matter of not wanting to deal with them than maintenance of focus. I didn't hear comments directed to him other than encouragement, but the crowd really didn't like him and he knew it.
    • Mickelson, Mayfair, and a few others smiled and nodded, accepting the crowds' well-wishing. And ALL the calls to the golfers in this context were encouragement. The gallery was enthusiastic and loud, but positive.
    • Faldo had fun with the crowd. He didn't just enjoy them, he joked with them -- in gestures at least, if not verbally. While we're on the subject of Faldo, his old caddy Fanny Sunneson is back with him. She's a lot fitter, trimmer, and better looking than she appears on TV. And watching them work together, I have no doubt why he's suddenly playing better than in the past few years.
    • Padraig Harrington was just soaking it all up and enjoying it. New York is full of Irish-Americans, and it seemed that they (and a goodly number of Irishmen-for-a-day) were adopting "Paddy". He went around the course with a grin that probably took days to wipe off.

Before I close, I'd like to thank:

  • Bill, for thinking of me when the extra tickets became available.
  • My wife Honey, for videotaping the competitive part of the event from the TV so I could see it as a competition -- having already experienced it as a "happening".