Tour and News

Brilliant Save: USGA did masterly job at U.S. Open at Bethpage

Photo: Robert Beck

The players need more USGA in their lives. They really do. They need someone to require them to play the ball down. (Lift, clean and place? You're so funny.) To tell them to play in the rain because a summer shower never hurt anybody. (But not in lightning storms. See Goosen, Retief.) They need someone to force them out of bed long before sunrise and to let them off the course only when the work whistle blows.

To point the players to a set of rubber steps and a cramped second-floor locker room if they want a hot shower. To inform them that a playoff, if necessary, will be conducted at 18 holes because anything less is just too . . . slight.

It's not a coincidence that Tiger Woods is one of the greatest USGA champions of all time, with three junior titles, three amateur titles and three U.S. Open titles attached to his name. Last week, with all the starting and stopping, with mud on his ball, with the hard luck of drawing an early Thursday tee time, did you hear Tiger utter a single complaint? Nope. Earl and Tida raised a man, and the USGA is a bastion of manly golf. (Ever been to a U.S. Girls' Championship? The atmosphere is oddly macho.) Tiger took 280 swings last week, all played in accordance with the USGA's strict and unforgiving rule book, and for his efforts the stewards of American golf gave him $233,350 but not what he came for — more hardware. 'It is what it is,' Tiger said last week. Exactly. He took four swings too many.

And so, Mr. Lucas Glover, winner of the 109th U.S. Open, you may have found a place in our hearts, or not. Doesn't matter. You did something far more important. You earned the right to hoist the U.S. Open trophy and have your name engraved alongside the names of the Joneses (Robert Tyre and Steve), Nicklaus and Woods, Tony Manero and Orville Moody. You blocked out all the modern noise: the Twittering, the Addams Family cellphone ringtones, the drunken chortling. You found a way to deal with the starting and the stopping. With muddy balls and soggy socks. With Bethpage Black's hayfield rough.

Along the way, you and Tiger and Phil and the 57 other golfers who played all the way through the Monday finish did the national recreation a big favor. You helped reestablish the USGA's authority over American golf.

Every week on the PGA Tour the pros play in their own events, under conditions they mandate, for money they, when you get right down to it, have raised themselves. Tim Finchem, the Tour commissioner, is not the boss of the players; he works for them.

The four majors are special because the players turn themselves over to higher authorities. In April, at the Masters, to Augusta National and the gentlemanly legacy of Bobby Jones. In July, at the British Open, to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the game's sandy roots. In August, at the PGA Championship, to the pros who teach and sell and grow the game. And most dramatically, in June, at the U.S. Open, to the U.S. Golf Association and the exacting standards of its white-shirted stewards.

No championship demands more of its players, physically and mentally, than the U.S. Open. Don't be fooled by the dots of red at the Black. A soggy aberration.

Last week at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., there were a thousand decisions the USGA bossmen could have gotten wrong, and yet they had one lone blunder: not originally giving rain checks to Thursday's storm-soaked spectators, a decision they reversed on Friday (page G6). To start play or not start play? They got that right about a dozen times. To re-pair or not re-pair? They went 2 for 2 on that one. You do this stuff on the fly, and it's harder than it looks. It takes confidence to send off the final twosome in the final round of a U.S. Open at 7:55 on a gloomy Sunday night, but that's what they did. At any point last week the players could have revolted and tested the USGA's authority. But they didn't.

If you think about it, last week was a wake-up call for us too: We need more USGA in our duffing lives, just like the pros. Whether we were schlepping through the Bethpage mud or watching the Johnny Miller/NBC Sports telethon (page G8), it became so obvious last week. Jefferson wrote about governments getting their power from the consent of the governed. Well, if the pros allowed the USGA to govern them in last week's trying conditions, that should be enough of an endorsement for us, right? Lead us, Far Hills, lead us. Take us to the promised land!

The USGA has made some bold and excellent moves in recent years, scheduling U.S. Opens on public courses: Torrey last year, Bethpage this year, Pebble next year, the brand-new Chambers Bay, near Tacoma, in 2015. But this nod to Regular Joe golf has also created confusion because our game is at best a distant relative to the pro game. We're looking for shorter courses. We want fewer lost balls, faster rounds, easier rules, cheaper green fees. For years now U.S. Open rounds on Thursdays and Fridays have approached six hours, brought on by 7,400-yard courses and overly fertilized rough and excessive watering and crazy-fast greens. (Don't get us started on Jim Furyk's putting routine.) All of that is trickling down to us, and it's suffocating. And if the USGA can't bring sane golf to us, somebody else assuredly will. Like the green movement, or the faltering economy, or local government.

Bethpage last week in lesser hands could have been a comedy of errors. Instead it was more like slapstick. Every time you looked up, either a dark cloud was moving in or raindrops were falling on your face. Last Saturday, Al Roker, the Today show weatherman, got more screentime than Phil Mickelson, the adopted New Yorker.

When the USGA first held a U.S. Open at Bethpage — in 2002, nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks — Tiger and Phil had a lively battle and the People's Open was a joyous escape. This year, on the people's side of the ropes, the party felt desperate at times. On Thursday grown men were taking running starts and sliding headfirst into the mud. On Saturday grown men were chanting for 'Fred F---.' You know, a 'clever' bastardization of Fred Funk, the 53-year-old golfer who talks to fans while waiting on tees, who treats reporters like human beings, who always has his family in the gallery. Early on Sunday, with the taps opened on a dreary first day of summer and with the Mets' bullpen struggling, grown men were downing cold ones two at a time.

Sure, New York sports fans are among the most knowledgeable and spirited in the world, but golf at Bethpage is not the football Giants at the Meadowlands. Five percent (rough estimate) of the Bethpage crowd might have benefited from one more year at finishing school. Might the USGA have done more to control the crowd? Not easily.

You could throw people out for abusive language, but where would you actually put them? The parking lots, accessible only by shuttle bus, were miles away, and the roads there were closed to pedestrian traffic. Things were easier back when Old Tom Morris was the czar of the Old Course.

Of course that's part of modern golf's problem, the lack of a czar. There is no Old Tom, no Charles Blair Macdonald (an early, autocratic president of the USGA), no Clifford Roberts (the strong-willed cofounder of Augusta National). There's no trusted tyrant. The game is too democratic — lowercase d, it goes without saying — for its own good.

You may think of the USGA as an excuse for a cocktail party for a bunch of old prepsters, but it's not. What it is is a bewildering blend of veteran professionals (executive director David Fay, competitions director Mike Davis, technical director Dick Rugge) reporting to an ever-changing board of volunteer lay people. It's amazing that decisions get made at all.

Last week, surrounded by soggy grass and sleep-deprived golfers and overserved spectators, the USGA white shirts got so much right it inspires nothing but confidence. A mess was averted. Somehow, out of the mud and despite the sputtering schedule, they produced an odd and interesting championship on an impossibly difficult and lush public course featuring the best players in the world.

Which leaves us with a question for the USGA: Can you turn to us next?

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