Weather Cedes Spotlight to Stars at U.S. Open After Three Days

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, June 22, 2009


The sound of low rumblings drifted across Bethpage. Spectators checked the sky and then the leader board, wondering whether they heard thunderstorms, or the crowd roars for Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. This time, it was the humans making the noise.

At last, the golf tournament played at Bethpage Black began to resemble a U.S. Open. For three days the event was a shapeless, rain-sodden, abbreviated mess, and the course played like a pasture, letting all sorts of unknown, curious, and reputationless nobodies in the door. But by the end of the third round there was a major championship feel to the proceedings. Mickelson had fought his way to contention just five strokes back, and Woods was lurking too, and it could safely be said the winner would be deserving, and not a weather-aided fluke.

"I feel like if I can get a hot round going, I absolutely can make up the difference," said Mickelson, after a tumultuous round of seven birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey left him at 2-under-par 208 after three rounds.

It wasn't a slight to 54-hole leader Ricky Barnes to say the tournament was in need of some grandeur, and the leader board was in need of stature. Barnes was intriguing, with his engineer's cap and lurch of a swing, and so was Lucas Glover, chewing a wad of something in his cheek. But Barnes is just No. 519 in the world rankings, Glover 71st. Still another spot back was David Duval, the grizzled 2001 British Open champion and burnout case now ranked 882, and the nondescript Ross Fisher of Great Britain.

The sky remained dourly gray, the weather close and humid with scudding clouds and wind gusts. Beery crowds trampled the rain-soaked walkways into brown slop. Maintenance crews strewed straw to help with the footing, and between the hay and the smell of wet fertilizer, the whole place was like a barn. Plus, it was loud. Drunks lowed like cows at the players, and bullfrogs bellowed from the overflowing ponds.

Ron Sirak of Golf Digest, assigned to trail Woods, watched a guy with a full cup of beer cup let out a roar like a Tiger -- and then flop in the mud. Another spectator, frustrated when Woods missed a birdie putt, yelled, "Hey Tiger, I want my money back. You owe me a beer."

"Well, they had a little bit to sip, I think," Woods said afterward. "They had plenty of time in that rain delay and they took full advantage of it."

Woods was relieved to play a full day of golf without a halt and to string together some decent holes in succession for a 68, after the previous two rounds of starts and stops and rain suspensions. "You know, it's just mentally gearing up, and gearing down," he said. "We can't even remember what day we were playing. It just all blurs together."

That Woods remained in contention was a testament to his patience, because for much of the day he seemed stuck in the mud. Teeing off on the 10th hole, he didn't really stir until he chipped in from the fringe on No.17, to an explosive roar. He was strangely static, and the problem was his putter, as he missed seven potential birdies. He might easily have shot a 63, but instead found himself nine strokes back with his total of 211. "I didn't make many putts. In fact, I didn't make any putts," he said.

With a full round left to play it was foolish to count Woods out of it. There were just 13 players ahead of him, and the inexperienced leaders might come unglued with a little bit of heat. But nine strokes was a large gap and he was realistic about his chances. The softness of the greens and fairways meant the players at his elbow would be scoring well too. "The guys are just tearing the place apart," Woods said.

"You have to play a great round of golf and get some help," he said.

That a low number could be had was also suggested by Mickelson, who charged out of all the stench and racket by rolling in an assortment of birdie putts. The sentimental favorite, whose wife Amy is battling breast cancer, set off tremors in the crowds with his go-for-broke wallops, vectoring iron play, and coiling putts. He sank a six-footer at the 14th, coiled in a 30-footer at the 16th, and then made a 25-foot ribbon on the 18th that slipped in sideways at the last second.

After all of his ups and downs, Mickelson was the man in best position to put pressure on the untried leaders in the final round which got underway just before dark. Barnes already seemed to be coming undone: he bogeyed the first hole of his final round from the rough. And was wallowing in the long grass again on the second hole when play was called. His three major championship titles (two Masters and a PGA) and four U.S. Open runner-up finishes gave him a distinct advantage over Barnes and Glover. And he knew it.

"I've been here in both situations and certainly theirs is the better end; having a lead is obviously the best spot to be in," Mickelson said. "But again, anything can happen in the U.S. Open. There are a lot of birdies on this golf course, and there are a lot of bogeys and doubles as well. If myself or some other guys at even, 1 or 2 under par can get a hot hand, the emotion of the event, the momentum can change."

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