Choi & Pain
Ready or not, here comes the U.S. Open. Ready or not? Oh, definitely not. Everything we know about next week's Open we were supposed to learn at last week's Memorial Tournament, the final important stop before the national championship.
Oakmont, we have a problem. We left the emerald hills of Muirfield Village Golf Club with more questions than answers. All we learned was that soft greens and no wind can turn even Jack Nicklaus's ode to Augusta into a Bob Hope Classic impersonator. Seriously, check out these numbers: Adam Scott shot a 10-under 62 (and was a pair of lipped-out putts and two misses from inside five feet from a 58); Kenny Perry had a closing 63; and winner K.J. Choi had a sweat-free 30 on the front nine on Sunday. How low did they go in Ohio? Three of the top four finishers Choi, Ryan Moore and Perry were a combined 22 under par in the final round.
"It made for an exciting finish because we had 15 players with an opportunity to win with nine holes to go," said Nicklaus. "When the wind comes up and dries this course out, it's tough, but we didn't have that. It is what it is."
Fine, but that doesn't answer our Open queries, Jack. Such as, Is the newly Harmonized Phil Mickelson ready to bury his meltdown at Winged Foot? Mickelson was a member of the walking wounded when he left Muirfield Village after 11 holes clutching his left wrist, which he apparently injured during meticulous Open preparation and perhaps too many practice shots from Oakmont's thick rough.
Jim Weathers, a physical therapist popular with PGA Tour players for his use of Shiatsu, a Japanese massage technique, worked on Mickelson's wrist for several holes before Lefty called it a tournament. A subsequent MRI showed inflammation but no severe damage, and Mickelson optimistically committed to play this week in Memphis but admitted that his appearance was questionable because he didn't want to "jeopardize the opportunity to compete in the U.S. Open." Will Phil be O.K. for Oakmont? Good question.
Here's another one, Jack. Is Tiger Woods ready to win another Open and move to within five of your record 18 majors? He'll surely be better prepared than he was for the Memorial.
Woods admitted he hadn't played much recently. In the weeks since his last start, at the Players Championship, he was sick with strep throat and otherwise stretched a little thin. He appeared at a press conference for the AT&T National, the tournament he's hosting next month outside Washington, D.C. He also held a golf clinic in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend for his annual TigerJam fund-raiser, and he continued to prepare to become a first-time father. "I've been a little busy," Woods said. "My time-management skills are going to be tested. Thankfully, I don't sleep much."
So it was a pleasant surprise, perhaps, that Tiger was even remotely sharp. He struck the ball superbly on the back nine last Saturday, and on Sunday he drove it well and shot a 67 to finish 15th. His putting wasn't horrible, but he didn't make many, either. His official self-evaluation? "Progressing," he said. A fair analysis and always a chilling thought: Tiger on the upswing.
We didn't learn much about possible Open contenders, either, Jack, given the un-Openlike conditions. A quartet of Aussies came up short on Sunday by basically beating themselves. Aaron Baddeley stalled with a closing 71 and tied for ninth. Rod Pampling, the thirdround leader, eagled the 15th hole to pressure Choi, but badly overclubbed at the 17th and made a bogey that ended his chances. He tied for third. Scott, who tied for fifth, gamely birdied the par-3 16th but then threeputted the 17th after a second putt that, he admitted, "looked awful." Defending U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy bogeyed two of the last three holes and dropped to a tie for ninth.
Perhaps we did find a dark horse for the Open, Jack. Your winner, Choi, is a hero in his homeland as the first South Korean to make it to the PGA Tour. He's quick with a smile and is working on his English. That language barrier has always kept the media away, which is why he's underrated. He grew up the son of a rice farmer and as a teenage powerlifter earned the nickname Tank because he could squat 350 pounds although he weighed a mere 95. He didn't have the upper-body strength to pursue that sport, so he turned to golf at 16, when a teacher gave him a Jack Nicklaus instruction book with Korean text.
At Muirfield, Choi earned his fifth victory with an improved short game. He wouldn't have won without the eight birdies he made on Sunday or the pars he saved on four of the last five holes. A bump-and-run chip through the fringe to three feet on the 14th was brilliant. "That was a very impressive chip," Nicklaus told him. "Incidentally, that was not in my book."
Like Nicklaus, Choi plays a high fade. "K.J., this works very well at Oakmont,"Nicklaus said, waving his hand to indicate a left-to-right ball flight. Choi nodded and smiled. He understood. The look on his face said that he'll be more ready than not.