PGA Tour Confidential: U.S. Open Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: U.S. Open Preview

Only nine months after 9/11, the '02 Open inspired Faldo and gave Bethpage a special place in championship history.
Fred Vuich/SI

SI convened a meeting of its golf experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, plus contributing writer John Garrity — and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to answer those and other questions


Van Sickle: What do you remember about the first Open at Bethpage, in 2002?

Hack: That was my last golf story for Newsday before I went to The New York Times.

Bamberger: So you mailed it in.

Hack: Exactly. But I love the course. People were concerned that the pros were going to tear it up, that it would be a cakewalk. I remember how tough it was. In an area that has such great history with Shinnecock and the National Golf Links, Bethpage can stand on its own.

Anonymous Pro: It was fantastic and plenty hard. I hear they’ve lengthened a few holes and there are more chipping areas, especially behind the 4th green, a great par-5. It used to be a straight drop down an embankment into the rough. Now it’s more level and playable. It’ll be a little friendlier in spots, but the rough was so thick it was a joke, especially after the rain. Hitting out of that rough sounded like smacking a water balloon.

Shipnuck: The finish is great. The 15th is a monster par-4 going up the hill; then 16 is a great par-4 coming back down. The 17th is the par-3 with the loud amphitheater. That’s the meat. Those three holes will define who wins. Phil made a bogey at 16 that ended his bid. It’s a brutal hole, up a steep hill to a sharply pitched, small green. There are going to be 5s and 6s there on Sunday. That’s going to weed out some contenders.

Bamberger: It’s a classic U.S. Open course. With the elevation changes, it really feels like a true stadium with the fans on top, looking down on the players a lot of times. With the frenzied New York crowd, it made for an intense experience. Remember, it was less than a year after 9/11 and emotions were still raw. There were red-white-and-blue headcovers, and Nick Faldo wore the I ? New York hat. The fans embraced the players and vice versa. I covered a Mets game, the first baseball game back in New York, and Mike Piazza hit a home run to beat the Braves, and there was Liza Minnelli singing New York, New York, and nine months later you had the Open here. It continued the healing. It’s not going to be the same vibe this time, but you’ll still have vocal fans.

Shipnuck: Can you think of any course that accumulated so much lore after only one tournament? It feels as if the Black has been part of the Open rota for 100 years.

Anonymous Pro: The atmosphere was great. The Jersey and New York fans aren’t afraid to mix it up. They yell the same stuff you’d hear at a Yankees game, but without the vulgarities. Golf gets too boring and too serious sometimes. This was more of a fun atmosphere. The fans were there to have a good time, have a few beers. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Shipnuck: It feels as if you’re at a Mets game. There’s sort of the jabronie factor, the guy in the crowd yelling, “Hey, Sergio!”

Van Sickle: How would you define jabronie factor?

Shipnuck: Jabronie means jackass. It’s a pressroom term for some of the players.


Shipnuck: Amy Mickelson is a gamer. And remember, Bethpage is where the cult of Phil began. That was the week during which he went from just another player to gallery favorite.

Hack: Bethpage will be a Phil lovefest.

Van Sickle: Phil became the Open mascot at Bethpage. The fans reacted to him as the 0-for-42 lovable loser underdog in majors, and got behind him.

Garrity: Part of it was the period when Tiger’s wins started to seem routine, mechanical, almost soulless. Then Tiger turns that upside down last year at Torrey, with the injury making him a bizarre kind of underdog, and shows all that heart in the most stirring major win of his career. Now he goes back to Bethpage with the likely possibility of being emotionally upstaged by Mickelson. It’s fascinating and very strange.

Anonymous Pro: Phil is the Arnold Palmer guy, the people’s pro. They love him because he engages the fans more than Tiger. When Tiger plays, he’s all business — he doesn’t look at anybody, he doesn’t interact with the crowd, he doesn’t sign autographs. Last year Tiger had the crowd at Torrey Pines. Bethpage is Phil’s place, for sure.

Shipnuck: Considering Winged Foot and what’s happening to Amy now, if Phil wins this Open it would be on the same level as Nicklaus at Augusta in ’86 or Tiger in ’97.

Van Sickle: Just showing up makes Phil a front-page, win-one-for-Amy story. The media will pounce on it with both tear ducts. No matter what Tiger does, the spotlight will be on Phil and his every move.

Bamberger: In my experience New York sports fans have tremendous b.s. detectors. If they like a guy, they generally know what they’re doing. I thought Bethpage was a validation for Phil last time. I know the other players have a hard time with Phil — I’m not really sure why. He’s great value for fans, he’s great for golf, and the New York fans figured that out very quickly.

Shipnuck: The one caveat is they took to Phil out of desperation because Tiger had won seven out of 11 majors and was at the height of his dominance. Phil was the only guy even close. Nobody wanted a coronation on Sunday. They wanted a showdown.

Bamberger: That’s right, and also Bethpage is Mets country, not Yankees country.

Hack: You said it. Tiger is the Yankees; Phil is the Mets.


Van Sickle: After some missteps, like at Shinnecock Hills and Olympia Fields and even Olympic, we’ve had three good Opens in a row. Has the U.S. Open’s stock risen?

Bamberger: Olympia Fields was a bad course. Shinnecock obviously led to a rethinking of the Open. Mike Davis, who sets up the Open courses now, is like the USGA’s white knight. He really brought art to the idea of setting up a course. They had to hit rock bottom first, and now the Opens are fantastic. Davis has brought out the best in each layout. And anytime Tiger is in contention or wins, it elevates your tournament.

Anonymous Pro: Davis brought a little sanity. It’s not ridiculously impossible anymore. The Open is unfairly judged by who’s in the final group, as Michael said. If it’s Brian Gay and Henrik Stenson, people will forget about the Bethpage Open. If the big guns play well, it validates the tournament. Tiger breathed life into last year’s Open. It was one of the best Opens I can remember.

Garrity: The last three Opens have restored the luster. I think back to Winged Foot, with all the big names and the disasters on the last hole — Mickelson and Monty. I’m not sure people remember who won the thing, but they remember that finish. That was really a glamour Open. Oakmont worked because of the changes to the course, cutting down all the trees. Then to come up with a finish for the ages, with Tiger getting the Open win of all Open wins on a bad leg at Torrey Pines. That was the ultimate. Yes, the Open is on a streak.

Van Sickle: The last time we were at Bethpage, there were a couple of fairways that some players couldn’t reach off the tee, which was a cardinal sin. It seems as if the USGA suddenly has a better handle on how to do this, after only 110 years.

Bamberger: The thing about the Open is that even as golf has changed so much with technology, the Open’s winning score hasn’t changed at all. You shoot even par, you’re probably going to win the Open half the time. The U.S. Open looks like it always has and feels like it always has. It’s timeless.


Van Sickle: Anybody up for a second helping of Rocco Mediate?

Garrity: That’s a once-in-a-career thing. You stumble into the Tiger spotlight, and everybody falls in love with you.

Shipnuck: I am so sick of Rocco. He had only one job at the U.S. Open last year, and that was to lose to Tiger, and he played that role perfectly. Rocco is a likable character, but the guy hasn’t won a tournament since, what, 2002? He’s pretty much irrelevant in the context of professional golf. It was a great week, but it’s over. Let him go.

Anonymous Pro: What about Padraig Harrington? You win two out of three majors. You ace the exams twice in a row. Why are you changing anything?

Shipnuck: It speaks to Padraig’s nature that he had the best year of his career and then tried to get better in the off-season. He got too wrapped up in swing mechanics. At some point this summer I think he’s going to be a factor in a major. But Bethpage is a lot of golf course for him right now.

Anonymous Pro: I’ve always liked Henrik Stenson’s game. His putting has been streaky, though. I’ve played with Paul Casey quite a bit over the years and he’s good, but it blows me away that he wins in Houston and he’s suddenly No. 3 in the world.

Shipnuck: I’ve been bullish on Casey for a long time. Then I gave up waiting. But he hits it long and straight, he’s not afraid to go low, and he’s not afraid to win.

Bamberger: I like Casey, but is he that much better than Sean O’Hair or Nick Watney? I’d put Casey in that next tier below the big guys. I’d elevate Stenson a little. You can’t say enough about that final round at the Players. That was big-time golf.

Anonymous Pro: You know, Angel Cabrera has the perfect game for Bethpage, but Angel is hard to read since you can’t really talk to him. You don’t know how he’s playing until he puts up his scores on Thursday and Friday. He may shoot a pair of 69s or a pair of 79s, you never know.

Van Sickle: Any chance some of the other fallen stars — Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia or Anthony Kim — resurrect their games at the Open?

Hack: Sergio has played a little better in Europe recently. It’ll be interesting to watch him interact with the Bethpage fans. He had such a bad week there last time, with his regripping and by saying the USGA should have stopped the tournament when he was playing in the rain. It was a variation of his I’m going up against more than the golf course theme.

Bamberger: That was definitely not in the Public Relations 101 playbook.

Hack: Now he talks about how breaking up with Greg Norman’s daughter wrecked his game. Right before you go to Bethpage is exactly the wrong time to start pouring your heart out. You served up a lollipop to the fans.

Anonymous Pro: Sergio is still a mystery. I’ve played with him this year, and he might be the best driver on Tour. His irons are fantastic and his short game is great, but poor putting is enough to make anybody lose interest in the game.

Van Sickle: When you have a three-footer and you can’t imagine any way you can make it, maybe because you have the yips, you don’t even want to be out there.

Anonymous Pro: I think you hit the nail on the head. Nobody wants to admit they have that kind of putting problem. I give Sergio props, though. A lot of players will do anything but pull out a long putter or a belly putter. Sergio isn’t afraid to try. His problem may be that he speaks perfect English. If he had difficulty with the language, like Cabrera, he’d be better off because he wouldn’t have to talk about his putting with the press. Answering those questions doesn’t help.


Bamberger: Padraig Harrington. Trying to win three straight majors is an enormous burden that would send anybody over the edge. But that talent doesn’t simply disappear. He’s long, hits it way higher than he used to, prepares beautifully and is tough as nails.

Hack: I’m picking Ian Poulter. He showed me a lot at Birkdale last year.

Shipnuck: No player ever faced more pressure than Poulter did at the Ryder Cup last year. A controversial captain’s pick, he makes a mess of the first match and loses; then he comes back to win four straight.

Van Sickle: You stole my pick! Now that Poulter is gone, I’ll take Tiger. He has the winner’s circle at Bethpage all to himself after ’02, and I don’t think he likes sharing. He never plays poorly for long. Never. Although if Poulter wears bell-bottoms plastered with Mets logos, I like his chances.

Shipnuck: I’m going with Vijay Singh. It’s a smashmouth course, and the greens are relatively flat. Putting will be de-emphasized; it’ll take a premier ball striker to win. Vijay is the kind of player who should win an Open, and at his age [46] it’s now or never.

Anonymous Pro: I was going to make Sean O’Hair my dark horse pick, but hell, I’m going to go ahead and pick him outright. He’s a great driver of the ball, a good putter, pretty long and is playing great.

Garrity: Once I start picking a guy to win, I stick with him. I’ve been on the Robert Karlsson bandwagon, and I’m staying on it.

Van Sickle: In other words, you’ll have the usual.

Garrity: Exactly.

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