PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The ball bounced on the rocks five times by my count. CLICK … Click … click, click, click … and then splashed with a mournful plunk in the inches-deep foam below the sea wall. About a dozen of us — officials, reporters, security guards and red-jacketed marshals — walked over to the grassy verge behind the 18th green and looked down. We saw the dream of a terrific young golfer ride the foam out and then tumble back in on tiny waves. Out and in. Out and in. And isn’t that just golf?
Twenty-year-old Morgan Hoffmann, the owner of the ball, said precisely that late Thursday afternoon, having just ended his first-ever major championship round with a ten-foot putt for a quadruple-bogey 9. Standing outside the scorer’s cabin with his hands in his pockets, a stoic Hoffmann said, “That’s golf.”
The game he plays so well, he could just as easily have said, was a temptress who led him down to the beach at sunset, only to push his face into the surf and hold it there until he was spitting up salt water. Two weeks ago, golf broke Hoffmann’s heart on a mountain golf course in Chattanooga, Tenn. That’s where his top-seeded Oklahoma State Cowboys lost the NCAA Division I Championship to little Augusta State University, partly because the two-time All-American was humbled, 5&4, by ASU star Henrik Norlander. And now golf had done it again, spoiling the Walker Cupper’s dream debut in the U.S. Open.
How bad was it? Well, Hoffmann was 1-under par and one shot off the first-round lead when he bounced a long-iron into the rough behind the green on the par-3 17th. That cost him a stroke. He then hit a splendid drive on Pebble’s par-5 18th, his ball stopping short of the two cypress trees that punctuate the dogleg fairway.
Did Hoffmann overreach? Did he pull a Mickelson and try to attack the green with a 3-wood, driver or hybrid crossbow? He did not. He calmly selected a 3-iron, took dead aim and gave it a solid whack — neglecting only to notice that the second cypress tree was marginally in his line. “I didn’t see it,” he would say of his re-routed shot. “I heard it. I had no idea, I was just looking around.”
He needed to look left, because his ball had hit the tree and ricocheted into Carmel Bay. Still reasonably composed, Hoffmann dropped a fresh ball fifty yards up the fairway and went for the green with a more aggressive swing. That’s the ball, pull-hooked, that landed on the rocks and bounced repeatedly along the sea wall to cries of woe from the grandstands, winding up in the foam.
Lying five now, a shaken Hoffmann dropped yet another ball — “like Tin Cup,” he would say with a pained smile — and pushed a 7-iron shot into a buried lie in the right-front bunker. Two bunker shots later, Hoffmann rolled in his ten-footer to sympathetic cheers and raised both arms in mock relief. He then plucked his ball from the hole and pitched it into the bay to swim with the others.
Hoffmann’s memorable collapse left him at 4-over-par 75, so he’ll be scrambling to make the cut and play on the weekend. To his credit, he refused to whine or fuss. “I had a great day,” he insisted, “I’m playing real well. I just have to take the good out of it and go out tomorrow and have fun.”
The good of it? What was the good, we had to ask, that Hoffmann could take from a closing 9 on worldwide television in his U.S. Open debut?
“I made a good putt,” he said without a trace of irony, “and hit a good drive.”
That, friends, is a golfer.