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The Country Club has always been about the big picture. But in the early days of U.S. Open week, no one paid so much attention to Roman numerals since they began counting Super Bowls. LIV, the Greg Norman reprise of the First Norman Uprising—which was oh, so last century—had smashed into the courtesy car world of professional golf, riding a tsunami of oil money that is the Saudi Public Investment Fund. It was all anyone wanted to talk about before the first tee shot at The Country Club and, at the same time, the topic everyone was flat worn out by. Then, thankfully, mercifully, along came actual tournament play, Matt Fitzpatrick, Billy Foster, and a welcome slap in the face.
Among the ironies, was that the world of golf was going through this turmoil—at least for a week—on the very piece of ground where American golf was born in 1913, midwifed by the kid from across the street, Francis Ouimet, in his defeat of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Now some of it, though not the most significant parts of it, was being hijacked by an Australian and a sheik. Years ago, too many to count, I was standing under the trees near the veranda of Augusta National’s clubhouse with the late, great Dan Jenkins. We looked up at the second-floor porch and leaning on the white railing was Sam Snead, alone, surveying the scene across the course and down the hill toward the 11th and 12th holes where Rae’s Creek marked the bottom of the valley. “What do you suppose he sees?” I asked. “Ghosts,” Dan said. So it is at The Country Club. Ouimet, who was around to present the U.S. Open trophy to Julius Boros in 1963, is merely the oldest.
In the 1988 U.S. Open here, a similar shootout to this week’s also took place on Sunday, when Curtis Strange and Nick Faldo went back and forth with Strange taking a one-shot lead into the 17th—the hole where Ouimet did in Vardon and Ray and where Ben Crenshaw dropped to his knees to kiss the ground after Justin Leonard’s long birdie putt finished off America’s comeback in the 1999 Ryder Cup after Jose María Olazábal couldn’t match it. Strange three-putted that piece of hallowed ground to fall a shot behind the Brit he was trying to hold off, then had to get up and down from the front bunker on the 18th just to get into a playoff the next day. After things died down, I saw Curtis’ wife, Sarah, behind the 18th green. She looked the way you would think a young woman would look after her husband had one hand on the trophy he wanted more than any other in the world and had very nearly given the whole thing away. But that wasn’t the way Curtis saw it. There is a calmness common to great players when they’re in possession of their best stuff in big moments. Instead of a blown opportunity, “Curtis says now he only has to beat one guy,” she said, almost as if she believed that he believed it. That calmness and relentless belief would show up again in Fitzpatrick on Sunday afternoon of 2022.
Strange and Faldo barely acknowledged one another during their 18-hole playoff. They shook hands on the first tee and again at the end. There were those who found it grim. Curtis did not. “What am I supposed to do, ask him about his wife and kids?” he once told me, chuckling through the truth of it. “I’m trying to win the U.S. Open. I don’t care about his wife and kids. I don’t care about my wife and kids.” It was Faldo who blinked, making bogey on three of the last four holes.
That was the same year Bobby Roth, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for Jenkins’ novel Dead Solid Perfect, was filming U.S. Open outtakes for the film. In one scene, he assembled a sneer of golf writers (it’s a shove of photographers and a sneer of writers) to pretend to interview Randy Quaid. As I was heading into the media center—the only media center I’m aware of that was ever erected on a curling rink—I ran into Peter Dobereiner, the magnificent writer from The Observer in London who bore a pixie-like, if oversized, resemblance to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, and was on his way out onto the course. “How are you, Peter?” I asked. “Splendid,” he said, “I’ve just been given a bit part in a pornographic movie.”
The Ryder Cup echoes from ’99 are more somber, fixed in time by the loss, four weeks and one day later, of Payne Stewart whose plane fell out of the sky and into a farmer’s field in South Dakota. For many of the golfers the 42-year-old Stewart played with and against that week, it would be the last time they would see him alive. Yes, of course, the unfortunate melee at the 17th after Leonard’s putt dropped is fixed in the memory like a jumble of family snapshots, everyone dressed hideously. But my lasting impression from ’99 is of the final match on the course that Sunday. The issue had been decided. The Americans had registered, to that point, the greatest comeback in the history of the Ryder Cup (until the tables were flipped on them by the Europeans at Medinah Country Club in 2012), winning seven of the first eight singles. Stewart, who had been actively protecting Colin Montgomerie from the vicious Boston crowd, picked up Monty’s coin on the 18th giving him their match. “That’s it,” Stewart said.
“What he did with Monty was the proudest moment I ever had,” Stewart’s caddie Mike Hicks has said. “The old Payne Stewart wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have been thinking about the big picture. I was proud of the way he handled himself the whole day. Those people were ruthless.”
And so the ghosts began their unpredictable ways for this latest chapter, although the roller coaster ride up, down and around rocky outcroppings, through fields of fescue and across the Olympic-sized bunkers edged with bushy eyebrows of rough, was relatively calm for the first two days. Thursday was highlighted—or, perhaps lowlighted—by a scruffy Phil Mickelson, looking like Tom Hanks in search of his volleyball, who earlier in the week stood at a North American podium for the first time since he called his newfound sugar daddies “scary motherfuckers.” The round coincided with Phil’s birthday—he turned LII—but the more frightening number for the six-time U.S. Open runner-up was the 14 putts on his first six holes on his way to an opening-round 78. Unlike four years ago at Shinnecock Hills, at least he didn’t hit any of them while they were moving and if he had to issue an apology to anyone it was probably only MBS.
Then, the weekend turned cold and cloudy, and on Saturday The Country Club behaved like it was Will Smith and the young stars of the game were Chris Rock. Rory McIlroy? Collin Morikawa? Scottie Scheffler? Jon Rohm? Whap. Whap. Whap. Whap. As Humphrey Bogart told Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” At the end of the day, seven different players led or shared the lead and the guy who didn’t aim at a single flag, Will Zalatoris, was tied at the top with Fitzpatrick, the Brit who was sleeping in the very same bed staying with the very same family—tournament chairman Will Fulton—he had occupied when he won the U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in 2013. (Maybe they’ll have to turn that house into a Ouimet-style museum just as they have Francis’ house on Clyde Street.)
Scheffler, the Masters champion, gave chase out of the gate on Sunday but bogeyed the 10th and 11th and couldn’t claw his way back to the lead. Zalatoris was nervy early but had four birdies in six holes in the middle of the round and gave himself a putt on 18 to send it to extra holes. But perhaps we should have known it was Fitzpatrick’s day after he dropped a 48-footer on the 13th for birdie. He hit two magnificent irons coming home, one from a wispy lie in the rough on the 15th, where he made another remarkable birdie, and a stunning fairway bunker shot on the 18th—the kind that old-timers decades from now will speak of in the same hushed tones as I do about my previous experiences here. Fitzpatrick hit 17 of 18 greens on Sunday. It’s the right U.S. Open recipe: David Graham did it on his way to victory at Merion Golf Club in 1981, and the one he missed was on the collar.
And now for a word about Billy Foster, Fitzpatrick’s caddie. In his four-decade career Foster has carried for luminaries like Seve Ballesteros and Lee Westwood, to name two. He’d never been on the bag for a major championship victory until The Country Club. It was no surprise to see Foster and Fitzpatrick smiling and laughing as they left the 17th green with the slimmest of leads after Fitzpatrick made a wary stab at a downhill birdie putt. Foster, a Yorkshireman, is as good at taking his player’s temperature as anyone in the business. One year at the match play event in Tucson when Foster was still on Westwood’s bag, Lee drove the ball left into the crowd on a par 5. The ball hit someone in the shoulder and settled—I know this because I was standing there—in a woman’s cleavage. When Foster and Westwood reached her, the first thing they did was make sure no one was hurt. Then the poor lady, a comely young lass, looked at Westwood and said, “What should I do?” Without losing a beat, Foster turned to her and said, “Could you walk about 250 yards in that direction?”
Neither the PGA Tour nor—much more emphatically—LIV have control of the titles that matter most in golf, a level of import that was blaringly obvious at The Country Club. Both Matt Fitzpatrick and Billy Foster will cash the checks they made in Boston, but money never lives as long as the ghosts do. We can all be thankful for that.
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