USGA Veered Off Course
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page D01
The final round of the 104th U.S. Open here at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday was either a disgraceful comic mockery of a great sport or a test of such stupendous difficulty that it was the very apotheosis of the best in the game.
Except for the creative brilliance and relentless grit of winner Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson, who shot 1-over-par 71s on a day when the field average was an almost insane 78.7, the verdict might have been simple: String the U.S. Golf Association up by its thumbs for turning our national championship into a contest of dumb luck and great shots routinely ruined.
However, Goosen and Mickelson ennobled themselves so spectacularly, they deserve enormous credit before the USGA receives its mandatory and fully merited bludgeoning.
Goosen's gumption on recovery shots from deep rough was off any chart and his 12 one-putt greens were almost as astonishing as his ability to show absolutely no human expression whatsoever, regardless of what befell him. Since being struck by lightning long ago, Goosen has always had an air of genial obliviousness that may have been just the ticket for this Open.
For his part, Mickelson actually ran off three birdies in four holes on the back nine to take a momentary one-shot lead at the 16th hole. On a course where most players had no birdies at all, Phil had a streak of them that might have won him an Open to go with his April victory at the Masters. However, Goosen sank one last long putt, for a birdie at 16, to tie him.
Perhaps that blow, under such day-long pressure, was just too much for Mickelson, who had shown and shared his emotions with the adoring New York crowds who had adopted him as their contemporary Arnie. At the 71st hole, after seeing and hearing Goosen make his tying birdie, Mickelson knocked a four-foot putt four feet past the hole, then missed that comeback putt for a disastrous double bogey. That blunder simply made Mickelson the last victim of a diabolical day of mortifications.
"He made a mistake, and I was just lucky to hang on," Goosen said.
Mickelson matched that graciousness, saying: "I'm proud of the way I played. I'm just disappointed it wasn't enough."
With that, may we please dispense with the good taste? This was a day of almost hallucinatory golf embarrassments. Any drive, no matter how cleanly struck, that didn't bound into the rough was a blessing. Any iron shot into any green that didn't react like it had hit a cart path was a gift from the gods. And any putt that didn't roll entirely off the green was a bit of a surprise.
Mickelson was asked if this round was golf-as-farce or a USGA examination that merely brought out a different kind of greatness from him and Goosen. Usually political, Mickelson opted for the truth. "I played some of the best golf of my life and still couldn't shoot par," said Mickelson, considered one of the best putters in history. "So you tell me."
"We are not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We're trying to identify them," said Walter Driver, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee, quoting former USGA head Sandy Tatum. However, Driver acknowledged that, in hindsight, he would have had the greens watered at 7 a.m. A far larger problem, however, was that the USGA took the calculated gamble of double cutting and rolling every green except No. 7 and 11 before this round.
In golf terms, that USGA decision qualifies as a mental quadruple bogey, a veritable snowman of bone-headedness.
If Goosen and Mickelson had merely shot the kind of scores that Tiger Woods (76), Ernie Els (80), Tom Kite (84) and Billy Mayfair (89) recorded Sunday, then no one would have broken par in this Open. Jeff Maggert would have won the crown by three shots by a kind of goofy potluck default over Mike Weir and Shigeki Maruyama. And all you would be hearing now would be howls of golf outrage.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company