2010 U.S. Open: With a heavy heart, Shaun Micheel soars into a tie for the lead

The world's best golfers vie for the chance to win the 110th rendition of the tournament.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- There is something incongruous about the setting provided by Pebble Beach Golf Links, stunningly gorgeous on a sun-dappled Thursday, and the fear it injects into the best golfers in the world. Thursday could not have seemed a finer day to begin the U.S. Open. A breeze came in off Monterey Bay, stiff at times but hardly unpleasant. The waves rolled in to the south as the townsfolk of Carmel walked their dogs, carefree, on the beach. The greens, scary and small, were unusually receptive.

And the stars? Well, they largely succumbed. One hundred fifty-six men began the tournament in these conditions. Only nine of them broke par, none by more than two strokes. Some of their names -- Ian Poulter, Mike Weir, K.J. Choi, Paul Casey, Ryo Ishikawa, Alex Cejka -- would perk up the ears in avid golf-watching households. Others -- Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Brendon de Jonge -- would send even rabid fans to Google.

And only one, Shaun Micheel, would tug at the heartstrings. The leader board shows that Micheel shares the lead with Casey, an Englishman who counts himself as one of the best players in the world, and de Jonge, a former Virginia Tech all-American who hadn't played an Open round before Thursday. It would show they all shot 2-under-par 69 on what might end up being Pebble's most benign day. But that same board does not show that Micheel is dealing with circumstances that have nothing to do with a dastardly pin placement or sturdy, penal rough.

"Sometimes," Micheel said, "you rise under difficult situations."

Micheel's situation is this: His mother, Donna, is dying of lung cancer at 63. She received the diagnosis last April, and by this Mother's Day, when Micheel received an afternoon call from his father that he should come over, she could hardly talk.

"I thought I had lost my mom then," he said. "I picked her up and put her on the bed."

No one, among the rest of the field, dealt with that Thursday. There were issues, of course, because this is the U.S. Open. But the degree to which the game's brightest stars struggled -- not to mention the degree to which Micheel excelled -- was surprising, because the United States Golf Association softened the greens just a hair overnight, making them a tad easier to hold, and presented the players with some accessible pins. That may not be the case come the weekend.

"Our scores say a lot about the U.S. Open," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, who did well to shoot 73. "You get good golf courses like this and set [them] up reasonable, in a regular event guys would shoot regular scores. But in this event, everybody gets a bit more tense."

Those who looked at Pebble's beauty but simultaneously considered its tenacity -- and then flinched a bit -- included Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the top two players in the world. Their total number of birdies at the end of the day -- zero -- seems implausible. Mickelson's morning round of 75 included two penalty strokes and five missed birdie putts that, strung together, totaled less than 40 feet. Woods's afternoon trek that led to a 74 was more methodical, and appeared to be more encouraging, until he bogeyed 16 and 18.

"The greens are just awful," Woods said, lamenting the state of the poa annua putting surfaces, which grew bumpy in the afternoon.

Others, though, seemed just fine with everything.

"It's unbelievable," said de Jonge, a 29-year-old native of Zimbabwe who holed out from the fairway for eagle on the difficult 14th. "Everything that goes along with it, with the tournament, the venue -- everything."

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