By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Everybody uses the phrase "the luck of the draw." But nowhere, not in poker or any other corner of the world of games does the expression mean nearly as much as in golf. Sometimes when you play, and in what kind of weather, means as much as how you play.
Golf's dirty little inescapable secret is that, once in a while, the tee times assigned for the first two rounds -- chosen at random to play in the morning or afternoon -- can eliminate half of the field from realistic contention for a title. Meanwhile, the player who uses his window of fair-weather opportunity to burn up the course may win it all.
Now, the ultimate extreme-case example of the luck of the draw has arrived here at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. If you are leader Lucas Glover, Mike Weir or Phil Mickelson, you're licking your chops. If you are Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington or Geoff Ogilvy, you're licking your wounds and may almost be out of the hunt already. It's tough to overcome a fluke advantage that's certainly worth three shots and maybe five.
By sundown, every name on the top-10 leader board had played in the lucky half.
It's nobody's fault. There's no better system and nothing to be done. It's just golf. But the raw unavoidable fact, almost delicious in its malice, is that the eventual winner of our national championship will almost certainly come from the lucky half of the draw. Those fortunate ones include Weir, who shot a first-round 64 in blissful perfect conditions, and crowd idol Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the world, who was tied for 12th place at 1 under par through his first 29 holes.
If Mickelson is looking for an omen, he may have it. His wife, Amy, who recently had breast cancer diagnosed, has let him know that "she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room." Now the weather and the draw have hampered half his foes.
However, on a day when the door of opportunity was wide open, lesser players such as Glover (6 under through 31 holes) and Ricky Barnes (5 under through 27 holes) made the biggest moves while Mickelson was tormented by his oldest nemesis -- the four-foot putt that almost every pro, and some amateurs, have mastered.
All day, Mickelson fans, many of whom play the five public Bethpage courses, yelled encouragement like, "Down the middle, baby. Who loves you?" But it would have help him more if they could have yelled, "That's good, Philly," on every short putt he missed. Mickelson missed enough gimmes at the muni that he could've been tied with Glover for the Open lead.
Let's use Mickelson and Woods to illustrate the fate of those in opposite halves of this Open draw. On Thursday, Tiger rose at dawn for an early tee time, played six holes in swampy conditions and a steady rain, constantly changing in and out of a rainproof jacket. The day's play was suspended at 10:15, so he had to finish his round on Friday, beginning at 7:30 a.m. He bogeyed the last two holes for 74. From the whole morning group, only two players shot 69. And the lowest score by a major champion was 71.
In contrast, Mickelson said, "I never even had to come to the course on Thursday. I watched a movie -- "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Then he teed off at a pleasant 11:06 a.m. on Friday. About that time, the clouds parted and Bethpage became Bermuda. In one beautiful nine-hour stretch of sun, soft greens and mild breeze -- in the midst of what may turn out to be the wettest and most miserable Open ever -- Phil and a bunch of lucky stiffs got to play their entire first round and as much of their second round as they could complete before the sun set. It was like watching a land rush as players fired for defenseless limp flags at dusk.
"We want to play as much golf as we can before the sun goes down. We certainly got the better end of the tee times," said Mickelson, during the one-hour break between rounds. Phil looked like he'd have used a flashlight and a phosphorescent ball to keep going in the dark if the USGA allowed it.
"The conditions will never get easier during the rest of the tournament. [With rain predicted all weekend] they will only get harder," added Mickelson. This was the day for birdies. Only half the field had a fighting chance. The rest of this Open will be survival.
"One side of the draw definitely had a big advantage. It's huge," said Weir who shot a 6-under 64 in the first round despite a double bogey -- five shots better than any morning-draw player. "That's about as easy as this course can play. I just said, 'Enjoy it and go along for the ride.' I'm wearing white shoes. They're hardly dirty."
Oh, rub it in.
"This is exactly what happened at the Masters in '03. It was rained out one day. Then we got a nice break [in the draw] the next day -- perfect conditions," said Weir, who won that Masters for his only major championship.
Don't look now but this accidental outrage may continue. Which group gets to tee off early on Saturday morning to finish its second round? Why the Weir group with all of the top nine leaders in it. How does the weather look for them? Pretty peachy. For a few hours anyway. They should have just about enough time to get finished before midday rains arrive, gradually dialing up to monsoon proportions, no doubt.
"If there is no wind in the morning when we come back out, it will be a great break," said Mickelson after his round, pleased with his ball-striking but aware that "I should have made some of those putts I missed."
On Saturday, as more bad weather is due, good luck to Jim Furyk (72), Vijay Singh (72), Ogilvy (73), Harrington (76) and the rest of the star-crossed half of the field. They'll need it. Nobody here even tries to imagine the complexities if there's more rain-plagued play on Sunday and, probably, Monday. But most believe this Open will end by July.
It's hard to prove exactly how many strokes this extreme example of the luck of the draw provided. But it's fun to try. The difference in scoring average between the two groups was 1.89 shots in the first round. Since all the leaders played at least nine to 12 holes at dusk under even calmer conditions, you can probably add another shot of advantage. However, at the top of the leader board, where it matters most, the gap may be even greater. The average score of the six lowest players in the morning group was 70.33 vs. 66.50 for the six lowest in the afternoon group. So, a five-shot draw-and-weather advantage for this Open winner seems plausible.
When snow hits an NFL playoff game or a cold drizzle pelts the World Series, players say, "It was the same for both teams." So, there are no excuses. But in golf it's just the opposite. Players know the game is unfair in the short run, but a perfect measure of talent over a whole career. So, by a different logic, no excuses are allowed either.
But on days like this, it can sometimes feels like golf's respect for the "rub of the green" has run amok.