Beware the ball-eating trees of Olympic Club

June 16, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — I couldn’t find it either.

A day after Phil Mickelson’s opening tee shot at the 112th U.S. Open at the Olympic Club vanished along the right side of the ninth hole, I returned to the scene of the crime. There was no police tape, no MISSING poster, no candlelight vigil, and certainly no signs of a Callaway HEX Black Tour golf ball. All I saw were trees.

Tall, beautiful, haunting cypress trees.

Cypress trees are in the Cupressaceae family, a conifer of northern temperate regions. On younger trees, Wikipedia tells us, the leaves are needle-like; on more seasoned trees, they grow as small, clumpy sprays.

What Wikipedia fails to mention is that some of these trees also fall into a rarer subspecies found on golf courses all over Northern California. Known to arborists as Cupressaceae golfballabducterus, these greedy, brown-barked beasts behave like something out of The Little Shop of Horrors. Smack a golf ball into one, and there’s no guarantee it’ll come out. According to one report, club maintenance workers once found 105 balls while cutting limbs from cypress trees near the eighth hole.

The Lake Course’s robust collection of Golfballabducterus didn’t wait long to strike in the 2012 U.S. Open. At approximately 7:33 a.m. Thursday, Mickelson stepped up to the tee at the par-4 ninth hole and snapped a wicked hook into the stand of cypress trees buffering the right side of the fairway. It was a miserable start to his week, and it soon turned mysterious. When Mickelson, playing alongside Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson, parted the throngs and arrived at the presumed location of his ball, the orb was nowhere to be found.

Had it plugged in the rough? Bounced into the nearby TV tower? Disappeared into a spectator’s pocket?

The spotter on the ninth hole never saw Mickelson’s ball leave the clubface because overhanging branches impeded his view of the right side of the tee box. He did see a marshal on the tee waving his paddles in the direction of the trees, but the spotter couldn’t say with assurance where the ball went.

“I’m a lawyer by training, so I can’t definitively say the ball is in the trees,” the spotter, John C., said Friday morning while on a short break from his spotting. (John asked to be identified only by his first name.)

“But if I were a betting man, I’d say it was up there,” he went on. “There was just too many people here for someone not to see it on the ground.”

One of those people was John Hopkins, a genial rules official from Perth, Australia, who was assigned to Mickelson’s group on Thursday.

“I was on the other side of the fairway, and I came straight across,” Hopkins recalled outside the Olympic clubhouse Friday morning. “I was asking people, ‘Where did Phil’s ball go? Where’s the ball? Where’s the ball?’ And they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Everyone was just milling around. They didn’t even know. No one knew we were dealing with a lost ball; it was really quite bizarre.”

“The only other place it could have been was that TV compound,” Hopkins added. “I went in there and looked around and couldn’t see anything.”

Back in the herd, the hunt was on. Fans looked down. They looked up. They looked way up. Two balls were actually spotted nestled in branches about 10 feet up.

“Guys were like, ‘Oh, there’s a ball! There’s a ball!’ But we couldn’t identify them,” Hopkins said. “If I’d seen ‘Callaway’ on there, then we could have gotten the binoculars out, and Phil could have said, ‘Yeah, it’s got my marking, and he could have played an unplayable.’ ”

Alas, no markings were visible, forcing Mickelson back to the tee. ''Not a good way to start the tournament,'' said Joe Ogilvie, who was waiting to tee off in the group behind Mickelson’s. ''I'm just glad the USGA official had the foresight not to say, 'Now playing his third shot ….' ''

Mickelson’s Callaway wasn’t the only ball that went M.I.A. in the first round. Dustin Johnson’s TaylorMade Penta TP5 disappeared into a tangle of branches at the par-4 10th. His search party also came up empty, and D.J., like Phil, was forced back to the tee.

The incidents recalled other famous lost balls. At the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s, Tiger Woods lost his opening tee shot in the fescue. At the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Jack Nicklaus pushed his tee shot on the 10th hole 40 yards right of the fairway, where it buried in a berry bush. The ball eventually showed up, but not until after Nicklaus had re-teed.

In the fourth round of the last U.S. Open at Olympic, in 1998, Lee Janzen bombed a tee shot into the trees at No. 5. Janzen was about to return to the tee when a wind gust dislodged his ball. He saved his par and went on to win the championship by a stroke.

Mickelson, who went on to shoot 76 on Thursday, wasn’t so fortunate. So if you’re at the Olympic Club this week, drop by the ninth hole and look up. You just might find a souvenir.

“I take it his ball is still up there,” Hopkins said.