As Ty Tryon tapped in for par on the ninth green at Congressional on Friday — his 18th hole of the day — the tiny gallery sent up a thin smattering of applause, not even enough for Tryon to acknowledge with a wave or a doff of the cap.
Little did the fans know. While all the drama had been sucked out of the tournament’s leader board Friday morning, courtesy of Rory McIlroy’s sustained, sublime play, what was occurring at the opposite extreme of the scoring spectrum — breathtaking surges (of pars) and cringe-worthy stumbles — was worthy of hushed tension and epic roars, if only you cared to follow the drama and keep score (and didn’t mind large numbers).
In fact, Tryon’s tap-in par, at the time, was critical: It gave him a 2-over-par 73, for a 36-hole total of 15-over 157, thus sparing him the ignominy of owning what was at the time a share of last place in the U.S. Open. He would not be High Man in the Clubhouse. And by the end of a long day at Congressional, he wouldn’t be next-to-last, either.
As nightfall approached, here came Michael Barbosa, an amateur from St. Petersburg, Fla., staggering in at 22 over as he prepared to play the 18th hole, when play was suspended at 8:04 p.m. Whether or not Barbosa shows up to play his final hole Saturday morning, this is your last-place finisher. Englishman Matt Richardson was next to last, at 16-over 158, followed by Tryon and amateur David Chung at 157. All of them, of course, missed the cut.
Asked what had motivated him Friday, after shooting a disastrous 84 on Thursday, Tryon said, “You don’t want to finish pathetically. . . . At least not finish last.”
There ought to be more attention paid to the bottom of a U.S. Open leader board. Not only do these golfers (to paraphrase, and twist around 180 degrees, Bobby Jones’s assessment of a young Jack Nicklaus) play a game with which we are quite familiar — full of wayward drives, shanked irons and bladed chips — but they also tend to have fascinating stories.
Tryon, 27, is a former golf phenom, who, at 16, became the youngest player in history to earn his full PGA Tour card, only to lose his way (and his tour card) amid outsize expectations and spotty performance. Barbosa, 28, is a financial planner who plays golf in his spare time and harbors no professional aspirations. Chung, 21, is a student at Stanford who finished his junior year in between competing at the Masters and the U.S. Open. (When he returned to campus and showed up at his first class after missing the cut at the Masters, he walked into a pop quiz on Karl Marx’s writings.)
The very “open” qualifying system that gives this tournament its name — with its several different paths for relatively unaccomplished and inexperienced golfers to get into the field — always leaves open the possibility for gruesome, public train wrecks. On any given tournament day in any given year, someone is liable to bogey nine consecutive holes.
This year, that player was Tryon, who pulled off the feat Thursday — well, technically, it was eight bogeys and a double — when his driver developed an acute, midround case of the smother-hooks. When he made the turn Friday in 41, he was a whopping 19 over par for the tournament.
But then he holed out from a fairway bunker on the first hole, his 10th hole of the day, for eagle, adding three more birdies down the stretch to close with a Roryesque 32, capped by his dramatic — for those of us paying attention — par on his final hole. With that, Tryon had something to build upon as he prepares to play a string of tournaments on the Nationwide Tour, golf’s Class AAA league.
“I like to think it’s right there, like the way I played the last nine holes,” Tryon said. “I know that, if I can have a whole week with my good, solid game, I can maybe contend out there from time to time.”
Barbosa made his dramatic move to the bottom Friday evening with an epic string of futility, beginning on the eighth hole, that went bogey-bogey-bogey-double-bogey-par-double. Even a late birdie on 16, that temporarily got him to 21 over, couldn’t prevent him from running away with last place the same way McIlroy ran away with the lead.
For Chung, the worst moments came on Thursday, when he sprayed his driver all over Congressional, even finding some landing places that aren’t included in the caddies’ yardage booklets — such as the port-a-potty compound to the far right of the ninth fairway. (At least there, he could relieve himself, then get free relief for his ball, in quick order.)
“Golf,” Chung said Friday, “is a game that keeps you modest.”
None of these men, nestled at the bottom of the leader board, all of them now plotting their way home for the weekend, came to Congressional seeking additional modesty, but the U.S. Open brought it to them nonetheless. What they won’t get is anonymity. Here’s to you, last-place-finisher Michael Barbosa and those you edged out.
Have a nice weekend.