Monday, June 20, 2005

Just Maori-ed! New Zealander Campbell Hitches Himself To U.S. Open Title

You can set your watch to it: every 42 years, a New Zealander wins a major championship. In 1963, lanky lefthander Bob Charles won the British Open. And yesterday, Michael Campbell survived the U.S. Open at Pinehurst's No. 2 Course on a day in which most of his opponents looked as if they were playing left-handed.

Of the final four players to tee off Sunday, three couldn't break 80: defending champ Retief Goosen (81), who squandered not only his three-shot final round lead but also a chance to cement his name in golf history; Jason Gore (84), who like his political namesake is likely demanding a recount; and Olin Browne (80), whose Sunday meltdown means Mr. Dutra, winner of the '32 PGA and '34 Open, remains the only major champion named Olin.

Campbell not only broke 80, he beat the U.S. Open's toughest perennial opponent, Old Man Par. A 1-under 69 gave Campbell, a 36-year-old native of New Zealand's Maori tribe, an even par, 280 total for the week and a measure of respect among his peers for staring down Tiger Woods that will last much longer. Tiger's spirited but shockingly fallible charge Sunday left him two shots short of continuing his quest to win all four majors in the same year. Now, he can only divert his Grand Slam aspirations to good friend Annika Sorenstam who's already won the first two legs of the women's Slam and goes for a third this week at the U.S. Women's Open.

In fact, after winning the LPGA Championship last week, Annika text-messaged Tiger, "9-9," to flaunt the fact that she'd matched his major win total at nine. He said his jocular rejoinder to her mobile missive can't be reprinted in polite company, and I'm guessing whatever he was thinking to himself as he stood on the 72nd tee Sunday can't either. No sooner had he clawed his way back from eight shots off the lead early in the final round with birdies at 11 and 15, Tiger bogeyed both 16 and 17. This pair of out-of-nowhere, unforced, eleventh-hour errors - reminiscent of the gifts he often received from would-be challengers down the stretch - would ultimately provide his own margin of defeat.

The name of this course now has new meaning to Tiger: the world's No. 1 player made a big No. 2 out of those two holes and now must wait another month for the British Open at St. Andrews for his 10th title in a Grand Slam tournament. Worse yet, as he waits he must wonder what's happened to his major mojo.

Once a lock in opportunities to win one of the big four, Tiger's fingers seem increasingly buttery. At The Masters in April, owning a two-shot lead on Chris DiMarco with two holes to play, Tiger bogeyed 17 and 18 and needed both DiMarco's birdie pitch to lip out (which it did) and his own dramatic birdie putt on the first playoff hole to drop (which it did) to finally win.

Sunday, after brilliant ball-striking put him in position to win his third Open in six years, Tiger couldn't get up and down from a relatively easy spot on 16 and then three-jacked the 17th to fall three behind Campbell. That remained the margin after Tiger's birdie at 18 was matched by Campbell's clutch 2 at 17.

During a week in which the ghost of Payne Stewart - Pinehurst's Open champion in 1999 - was eerily present, Tiger could only hope the specter from another '99 major would apparate on the 72nd hole. Only a Jean Van De Velde-ian triple could keep Campbell from redeeming the last decade of unfulfilled potential and validating himself as a player worthy of golf's biggest stage.

Instead, just a harmless bogey left Campbell at level par, two better than Tiger and now firmly and forever entrenched as a national hero among his Maori people and all of New Zealand, which is now on the clock with 42 years to celebrate its newest major champion.


Steve said...

That was a heckuva tournament. Poor Goosen, though. He like forgot he was a golfer yesterday. 81???!! Horrid.

I was really happy for Campbell, though.

Joel said...

Great post. Too bad you will get not a penny from it.

No sense in both of us being broke!

I love you. Great writing.

believingthomas said...

OOOOH, I just noticed that your blog now has bits of real panther! That is value added!

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