FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — A lot can happen in seven years. So as we reconvene here at Bethpage Black for the United States Open, there is no reason to expect the same players who played well in 2002 to do so again in 2009.
Except Tiger Woods, of course. Like Jack Nicklaus, Woods has become the exception to pretty much any rule. He is a better, more well-rounded player now than he was in ’02, although his Butch Harmon-coached swing then looked more repeatable than his flatter Hank Haney-coached method now. Coming off his Memorial win, and that exclamation point of a 7-iron that he stuffed to a couple of inches on the 72nd hole, Woods looks ready to resume his pursuit of Jack’s once-untouchable record of 18 professional major championships.
So how about the supporting cast from ’02 as they return for the sequel? Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia were Tiger’s most serious pursuers then, but they aren’t exactly peaking now.
Harrington, the popular Irishman, was the breakout star of 2008 when he repeated at the British Open and won the PGA Championship. This year has been a different story. Whatever the cause — a letdown, too much swing tinkering? — he is clearly suffering. His only top-15 finish in a PGA Tour event was a tie for 15th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He missed the cut in three of his last four events, wasn’t in the top 30 at the Masters and wasn’t in the top 40 at the Players.
He certainly doesn’t look poised to contend again at Bethpage, where he was second after 36 holes in ’02. Paired with Tiger on Saturday, he shot 73, and he fell back to eighth place with a closing 75. Harrington knows his game isn’t quite where he wants and expects it to be yet, but he still exudes some confidence.
“I was No. 3 in the world,” Harrington said Tuesday. “I wanted to get better, and the way to get better is to improve and change things, and if that means I step back a bit, that’s OK in the short term. … I understand the process that would bring me back to form. It’s just a question of managing it and being patient and waiting for it to turn around.”
Harrington is paired with Woods and Angel Cabrera, the Masters champion, for the first two rounds, a cute pairing that brings together the winners of the last four major championships.
“Obviously, I have to manage a bigger gallery than normal,” Harrington said. “There will be a bit more of a buzz, and that can be a positive and a little bit of a negative.”
Of course, Harrington didn’t seem like much of a threat at last year’s British Open, either, when a bad back prevented him from playing more than a couple of practice holes early in the week. Can you seriously ever count this man out? During the Tiger Era, he’s won three majors, the same number as Mickelson and Vijay Singh.
Grip it and grip it
The last seven years have seen the Rise and Fall of Sergio. At Bethpage in 2002, Garcia was fighting an annoying pre-shot waggle in which he laboriously gripped and regripped his club before each shot. The New York fans, never shy, got on him about it. That strained relations, which led to Sergio flipping them an unkind gesture. Sergio also gave birth to his image as a whiner that week, complaining when the USGA didn’t stop play during a rain shower and suggesting that play would’ve been stopped if Tiger had been on the course.
Those minor incidents were forgotten in the ensuing years, however, as Garcia retooled his swing about as quickly as any top player ever has. He morphed into one of the tour’s finest ballstrikers and certainly one of its best drivers. He has won six times in Europe and the U.S. since Bethpage, including the ’08 Players, and has risen as high as No. 2 in the world rankings.
The putter has become a problem, however, and he has been in a slump while looking for a solution. (He has sometimes used a belly putter.) He has also had bad luck. His approach shot clanged off the flagstick during his playoff with Harrington at Carnoustie in the British Open. At Oakland Hills in last year’s PGA, he played well enough to win but Harrington, again, had the putting round of a career and edged him out.
Garcia hasn’t had a top-10 finish this year in the U.S., and he has been moody. He blamed some of it on a breakup with Greg Norman’s daughter, but it seems like more than that. He sounds like a player who knows he can’t compete because he can’t putt. His issues on the green were apparent when he missed a number of short putts while trying to defend his Players title. At 29, he is the best player who hasn’t won a major.
Still, the New York fans who hounded him seven years ago won’t be an issue this time, he assured writers Tuesday. He loves New York and its people, he said, and he knows how passionate the local fans are. The 2002 Open, he added, “was a good experience.”
As for his missing confidence, Garcia said, “It’s getting better. I can see the things I’m working on with my dad and Stan Utley are doing good. It’s not easy. At least if you are looking forward to working on it and trying to get better, it helps. It’s hard to recover from losing a little confidence. But it’s moving forward, so it’s good.”
Still, Garcia won’t be on anyone’s short list of likely Open contenders this week.
Bethpage is where it all began for Mickelson. This is where the New York crowds, perhaps looking for someone to challenge the all-winning Tiger, got behind Mickelson, who was a Bob Uecker-like 0-for-career in major championships back in ’02. The vocal support was remarkable, and the fans crowding the hillside by the 17th green sang “Happy Birthday” when he came through. (His birthday is June 16.)
Since then, Mickelson has captured two Masters and a PGA and established himself as the second-best player of his generation.
Mickelson would have been the overwhelming favorite this week but for two things. One, Tiger regained his winning form at Memorial. Two, Phil’s wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fan support is sure to be overwhelming, but his Open preparation hasn’t been as meticulous as usual — maybe less is more, optimists say — and his wife’s illness looms as a potential distraction. Especially when well-meaning fans keep offering their sincere get-well wishes, which will only serve to remind him what’s going on at home.
It’ll be a tough week emotionally for Mickelson. Can a man whose game is a little rusty, as seen in his showing last week in Memphis, really overcome all that and Tiger Woods to win the tournament that has famously slipped through his fingers too many times already? (He was runner up at Pinehurst, Bethpage, Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot.) It would be the Cinderella ending of all time, rivaling Tiger’s one-legged Open victory of a year ago.
That may be too much to ask. Seven years later, though, maybe it’s not too much to hope for.