At U.S. Open, Quirky Is Par for the Course

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y., June 21 -- The leader of the U.S. Open golf tournament walked up one fairway Sunday afternoon, and nearly the entire gallery strode in the opposite direction. On a day when golf's national championship is traditionally decided, it makes complete sense to follow Tiger Woods. So gigantic throngs did just that.

The problem: Woods wasn't leading. Far from it. The man in front, who was walking up one fairway as Woods teed off from an adjacent hole, was some guy named Ricky Barnes. Their differences can be described thusly: Woods has won 14 of golf's major championships, trailing only the legendary Jack Nicklaus, and is one of the preeminent athletes of his generation. Barnes is 28, hails from Northern California, is using his brother as his caddie and has won precisely nothing as a professional golfer.

And that dichotomy isn't even the strangest thing about this U.S. Open, one of golf's most prestigious events. The list of oddities that have occurred on the vaunted Black Course at Bethpage State Park will define this tournament for years to come, regardless of who is crowned champion. The schedule isn't normal. The scores aren't normal. The crowds aren't normal. And the leaders -- Barnes, who frittered away a huge advantage, and a pedestrian pro named Lucas Glover -- aren't normal, either.

"It's just been so screwy," said David Duval, who sits five shots back, "I barely remember it's Sunday."

To set internal clocks straight, the tournament will end Monday -- requisite disclaimer: weather permitting -- becoming only the third of 109 Opens to be pushed to an extra day by weather. And it has been, to this point, absolutely drenched, creating a herky-jerky, start-again, stop-again feel that has completely altered the normal flow of a golf tournament. Such championships are supposed to be staged in four neatly organized chapters, eac h round played on a single day. This has, at times, felt like mayhem.

"It's kind of like being stuck in an airport and they won't refund you," Barnes said. "But you'll come back, and you'll get to your destination every once in a while."

Getting to that destination was something like flying from Washington to New York with a 12-hour layover in Honolulu. The field played part of the fourth and final round on Sunday night -- enough time for Barnes to lose what was once a six-shot lead and drop into a tie with Glover -- and is due to finish Monday morning.

But these issues -- and the ancillary ones the weather caused -- didn't begin Sunday, when play was delayed until noon so some 200 workers could dry the course. Rain first came in sheets Thursday, cutting off play in the opening round after about three hours. It came again Saturday night, with golfers still on the course. Players went to bed Saturday believing they would begin play again at 7:30 a.m. Sunday. At 7:30 a.m. Sunday, it was raining. Again.

"It's just mentally gearing up, gearing down, gearing up, gearing down," Woods said. "You get up in the morning, you kind of think, 'Yeah, I know I've got to get ready a little bit, mentally, to get focused and get ready to go -- just in case.' "

Woods, who trailed Barnes and Glover by seven shots when he left the course Sunday, has become another unexpected development at this Open. He was the heavy favorite -- he is nearly always the heavy favorite -- because he not only won this tournament last year, but because he also won it the only other time it was played at Bethpage, in 2002.

But the rains have altered not only the logistics of the event, they have altered the course itself. Behind the first tee at Bethpage Black hangs a sign that reads: "The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers." As proof, when Woods won here seven years ago, he was the only man to shoot better than par. This year, 11 players finished the third round under par.

"The guys are just tearing this place apart," Woods said.

The United States Golf Association annually prefers to make the Open the toughest tournament in golf. Therefore, it attempts to make courses hard and firm, so that all but the most accurate shots might bounce in directions the players find unpalatable. The rain, though, makes that impossible. Shots that would, under normal Open conditions, hit the green and roll away are instead sticking, making lower -- and therefore better -- scores possible.

"Don't forget," Woods said, "this is a different golf course than what we have been preparing for."

Woods has not, for the most part, dealt with it well, and he threatened to yield to a group that includes Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the world, and a largely anonymous hodgepodge. That group will, at some point, produce a champion. When it does, the New York crowds will roar, just as they have all week, apparently unaffected by the slop through which they're trudging. Golf tournaments normally bring only polite applause. This Open is, by comparison, something like a KISS concert at Madison Square Garden in the '70s, with wisecracks thrown in.

"I've heard some great lines," Mickelson said. Like what? "The best ones I can't repeat," he said.

Barnes, of course, doesn't deal with crowds like this -- or crowds at all. He toiled on the minor league Nationwide Tour for five years. He is, finally, a rookie on the PGA Tour, for the world's best players. Glover, a 29-year-old South Carolinian, won once on the PGA Tour, but it was four years ago. Even ardent golf fans wouldn't recognize their names.

Yet Sunday night, Barnes headed back out for a final-round tee time of 7:37 p.m. -- strange enough, even if he hadn't held the lead in the U.S. Open. He and Glover completed just one hole before play was halted again. They would rise again Monday, and finish it out -- if all went as planned.

If all went as planned? What evidence is there that's even possible? Not at this Open, one of the oddest of all.

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