Think of the U.S. Open as a commercial airplane flight, an overbooked flight, a ridiculously overbooked airplane flight. People are standing in the aisles because there's no room to sit. The flight attendants ask for volunteers who'll get off and take a later flight. For a while nobody volunteers, they stay packed in there, cheek to jowl, like cattle in a pen. Then, finally, one gives in and leaves the plane, then another and another until you look around and there's all kinds of room to sit and one person is doing all the sitting.
On behalf of the flight crew at Shinnecock Hills, I'd like to thank the following golfers for getting off the airplane: Greg Norman, Bob Tway, Payne Stewart, Mark McCumber, Chip Beck, Ben Crenshaw, Hal Sutton and Lee Trevino.
Enjoy the flight, Mr. Floyd.
You want to talk sardine can? You want to talk step to the rear, please? You want to talk we have room for one more as long as you don't exhale?
They couldn't have gotten any more names on the leader board with a shoehorn. Five different people led outright Sunday. Ten different people had at least a share of the lead. And at one time, nine people -- Beck, Crenshaw, Floyd, McCumber, Norman, Stewart, Sutton, Tway and Lanny Wadkins -- were tied for the lead at the same time, which, for the record, was 4:27 p.m. This wasn't the U.S. Open, it was Hands Across Shinnecock Hills. All the proceeds will go to buying lime green pants with little yellow ducks on them for underprivileged country club members.
Holding the lead was like riding a bucking bronco after a big lunch: easy come, easy go. Norman wasn't on the course 30 minutes and six different guys had passed him. The contenders played the front nine as if they were charging into the first turn at the Indy 500. Who birdied Nos. 1, 3 and 5? Who didn't? Sometimes, rather than asking who was leading, it made more sense to ask who wasn't. Well, who wasn't? Ben Hogan?
The logjam at the top didn't break up until the back nine, and then it came apart in sections -- leaders blowed up real good as they say on SCTV. Norman was the first to go serious boom. Saying later that he felt flat all day, that nothing lit his wick, Norman was nevertheless no more than one shot off the lead through eight. But they had to send a tow truck for him after bogeys on nine, 10, 11 and 13. This is the third time Norman has been in position to win a major -- he lost the 1984 Open in a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller; he bogeyed the last hole at this year's Masters when a par would have forced a playoff -- and his cup is still empty. He shot 75, nine higher than Floyd. "I lost it, and he won it," Norman said forthrightly.
Chip Beck had some unfortunate slippage, too. He had a four-footer for a course-record 64 and level par at 18 and missed it. He had been spectacular on the back nine, birdieing 10, 11, 12, 13 and 15, coming out of dead solid nowhere. His playing partner, Seve Ballesteros, told him on 18, "You can win this championship. Take your time on the putt. Make sure. It's open for you." But he sent it at the middle of the hole and it went right. "I was happy with the way I handled the opportunity," Beck said serenely.
Others fell on the back nine as well: McCumber and Tway both double-bogeyed 16 and came home in 38; Crenshaw, who birdied Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 to tie for the lead, gave two back and returned in 37; Stewart and Sutton, who was 4 under on the back nine Saturday, also finished in 37, squandering outright leads. Sutton bemoaned his bogey on 12: "It was the time when everyone was making their move. I needed to make one to establish my presence. I moved in the wrong direction." Stewart, playing with Floyd, deflated with bogeys on 13, 14 and 16. "After 16," Stewart said, "it was turn out the lights, the party's over for me. Next year."
Among the primary contenders, only Wadkins -- other than Floyd -- came through the back nine whole. And to be fair, Wadkins wasn't a primary contender. He started the day six off the pace, an afterthought, but birdies on two, 11, 14, 15 and 16 put him in the clubhouse with a posted score that had him thinking playoff an hour before Floyd ever reached the lead. "My position is pretty obvious," Wadkins said while watching the musical chairs on TV. "I'm going to sit here and hope the wind blows like hell." Laughing a good old boy's laugh, Wadkins said, "It's not like I'm rooting against anybody. I just want to see them play good enough to play 2 over." But the more he watched his buddy Floyd stick iron shots within the shadow of the flagsticks, the less likely the playoff loomed for Wadkins. When Floyd parred 14 for a one-stroke lead, Wadkins said, "I like Raymond's position." When Floyd birdied 16 to go 1 under, Wadkins rolled his eyes and said, "Raymond, behave yourself, boy."
And suddenly Floyd was all alone. He was coming home in 32, and the Red Sea was parting in front of him. Stewart, who played with him, saw it in Floyd's eyes. "They got real big," Stewart said, "Raymond's very intense out there; he really focuses. He knows how to tune everybody out and tune himself in."
With a two-shot cushion, Floyd played the last two holes smoothly and patiently, walking down the fairways in that waddly, upright way of his, making sure it was under total control. At 43, he would be the oldest Open champion in history. He'd never done well in the Open before. This was his first real chance to win the Open, and he realized it might well be his last. He had waited too long to rush things. "I know how to play golf, and I know about emotions," said Raymond Floyd, who now knows how to win the U.S. Open.