Michael Allen, the oldest player in the U.S. Open field, has seen the best and worst at Olympic
No player in the 112th U.S. Open had more experience than Michael Allen. Not in life (he’s 53) and not at Olympic (he has played a thousand rounds there). Like Tiger, he has logged a lot of hours with Hank Haney and moved on. (Allen is way better for the distance.) Like Jim Furyk, he’s come to the 18th on the Lake course desperate for a birdie. Furyk on Sunday was playing for a second U.S. Open title. Allen has stood on the home green playing for junior titles he was never good enough to win and, in his fallow years as a pro, for money he did not have.
What a golfing life this guy has led. On Sunday afternoon, when his workweek was over, Allen sat in the Olympic clubhouse and watched Jason Dufner and Michael Thompson and Webb Simpson go by in the flesh, and Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington go by on a grill-room flat screen. Forty years in the game have left him with some kind of connection to those six and a thousand others. He played the Tour with Spencer Levin’s father, and with Spencer Levin. It was only a few years ago that Allen was playing in minor Tour events with the new U.S. Open winner, one guy starting his career, the other trying to extend it, each trying to keep a Tour card. The whole point of Michael Allen’s career is that a guy can improve. Actually, the same is true for young Webb.
Allen played 369 Tour events before turning 50 in January 2009. No wins. Then came his first senior event, the ’09 Senior PGA Championship at Canterbury. He won it. This year, at the PGA Tour stop in Mexico, he had a top 10 finish. Last week he shot rounds of 71, 73, 77 and 73, finished 56th and earned $21,995. He is better now than he has ever been.
He finished ahead of Rory McIlory (MC), Phil Mickelson (65th) and 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley (68th), with whom he played on Sunday. They did not compare their PGA trophies or any other notes, really. Allen likes a conversation, but you know these kids. On 17, Allen, a husband and father of two girls, lit a Cuban Father’s Day cigar given to him by Miguel-Angel Jimenez.
Allen understood the national championship shots he and his 71 Sunday competitors were playing better than Johnny Miller. Allen was worried about McDowell’s final tee shot while it was still in the foggy evening air. “That hurts,” Allen said when the shot landed on the fairway but settled in the first cut of rough. “You can’t stop it off that lie.”
From that fluffy launching pad, McDowell hit a beautiful approach that finished 25 feet above the hole. “From the fairway, that shot would have been 10 feet closer,” Allen said. A nine-iron off Olympic’s well-barbered fairways will spin like Bill Walton at a Grateful Dead concert, and Tour players will make 15-footers. Lots of them. But a 25-footer to force a U.S. Open playoff? Now you’re waiting for a miracle. Simpson won from the house.
On Sunday afternoon Allen probably should have been in the NBC booth with Johnny, who was also a junior golfer at Olympic way back when. But instead Allen was in a crowded grill room, sitting at a round table with the leader in the clubhouse, 27-year-old Michael Thompson, who had finished at two over par.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Allen told him.
“The playoff is on Monday,” said somebody at the table.
“In that case, get a cocktail,” Allen said. The table laughed. U.S. Open golf is tense.
Allen has a reputation as a wine man, and it is true that he once won a tournament in Bordeaux and a barrel of wine accompanied his victory. But he also won the 1989 Scottish Open, and he likes the malts. This is a man who visits museums, plays chess and has a dream about owning a pied-à-terre in San Francisco. He’s not your ordinary touring pro. Earlier this year he won a Champions tour event, the Legends of Golf, with another wine buff, David Frost.
It wasn’t that long ago that Allen was a teaching pro at Winged Foot—a lousy one, in his assessment—trying to get a job at a Donald Trump course. He figured out golf at (roughly) age 47, with the help of a California teacher named Mike Mitchell, who put him in clubs that are four degrees flatter than standard. “On my worst days I know I’m going to be in the ballpark,” Allen says. To borrow a phrase, he owns his swing.
Allen watched Tiger make a few swings on Sunday and said, “It’s a way better swing than it was under Hank. Hank gives you so many things to do, there’s not enough time in a day to practice it all.”
As for the new swing, Allen didn’t need to see Tiger’s weekend scores to realize that he did not yet own his own new action. Ten years ago, when Woods won the U.S. Open at Bethpage, Allen played behind Woods for the first two rounds. He couldn’t believe how quickly Woods pulled clubs and played shots. At the ’08 Open at Torrey Pines, in the Woods-Haney heyday, Allen couldn’t believe how many practice swings Woods made before he played shots. Tiger won the hardware but didn’t own the swing. The pros see a different game than we do.
They say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, and native San Franciscans, like Allen, have a goodly number for fog. There’s summer fog and winter fog. There’s pea-soup fog and misting fog and something called tule fog. (The Scots have haar.) Fog comes thick and thin and in between. Shortly after Allen finished his Sunday round at 2 p.m., the Great 2012 U.S. Open Heat Wave (78° and beautiful) came to an abrupt end, leaving behind brown and crispy fairways and greens. By the time Furyk and McDowell headed off the 1st tee, with Allen turning his attention to the marathon TV broadcast, a chilly fog bank had rolled in.
“It’s not so much that the course conditions will radically change,” Allen said. “It’s that the guys won’t know how to allow for the changes.” To the players the greens looked slower than they were. Bounces in front of the green and on them were unpredictable. Els and Furyk and McDowell got fooled again and again.
Allen could see the confusion in Furyk’s expressive face. He could see it when Furyk stood on the tee of the par-5 16th, played from a spot about 100 yards forward from where it had been in the first three rounds. The duck-hook tee shot didn’t surprise Allen a bit. “It was coming,” he said.
Allen wasn’t trying to sound like the Answer Man. He said, “This is what I do.” As a junior golfer at Olympic and as a college golfer at Reno, Michael Allen was never anything special. He didn’t really get serious about golf until about 1984, after college. The U.S. Open was coming to Olympic, and Allen made it a goal to play in the 1987 Open at his home course. He didn’t make it. When the Open returned to Olympic 11 years later, he wasn’t in the field again. For Allen, the third time was the charm.
At the start of last week he thought three under would be a winning score and believed he could shoot it. “I’d have to do everything right, but I thought I could,” he said. Viewed through that narrow prism, his week was a disappointment. Viewed every other way, it was a smashing success. The next oldest finisher was Stephen Ames, age 48. There’s something to be said for being a late bloomer. Webb Simpson and Tiger Woods wouldn’t know about that, but Allen does. Maybe those guys will be done with golf at 53. Allen has a long bucket list.
He has never played in a Masters. He figures his only chance to get in is to win on the regular Tour. As soon as the 2013 schedule comes out, he’ll be looking for the dates of the Mexico tournament. As for the ’13 U.S. Open at Merion, you can sign him up for qualifying right now. He got into the Olympic Open as a qualifier.
When Simpson finished one over for the tournament, Allen thought that would be good enough to win, even though Furyk and McDowell still had chances to match that score. He turned to members of the Michael Thompson party and said good-naturedly, “Oh, well.” Some moments later Simpson and his entourage paraded through the grill room, and a collection of players and their family members and managers, and a couple of caddies applauded the man, Allen among them. “It’s amazing what he has done with his game,” Allen said.
He could have been talking about himself.