Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Of Judges and Juries: Pinehurst's First Open

I began this U.S. Open week with a spin through the book of Judges, specifically chapter 19. You, no doubt, instantly recall this inspiring tale about the traveling Levite who finds late-night shelter from an old man in Gibeah, only to have some of the men-folk arrive with a male package they insist on delivering personally, at which point the kindly but embarrassed old man offers his virgin daughter as a consolation prize, whereupon the Levite instead sends out his concubine to be ravaged, after which he saddles her up, takes her home, and cuts her into 12 easy pieces.

Coming soon to a Sunday school feltboard near you!

That the USGA prefers its national championship lean toward the Old Testament's penal substitution system of blood sacrifice is more of a coincidence. The main reason I mention Judges 19 is that when telling stories, it is critical for the listener to understand context. Mind you, I have no idea what context could possibly explain such unmitigated evil as the above story recounts. But as one of the fortunate few to have been at Pinehurst in June 1999, I do remember not only the details of the unforgettable story that played out that week but what many of us were thinking at the time.

Half the field this week can barely remember a time when Pinehurst wasn't part of the U.S. Open's unofficial rota. But as legendary as this Donald Ross masterpiece is and has been for decades, 1999 was the first time it hosted this championship. The way those four days unfolded ensured it would not be the last.

Having an unspectacular player win unspectacularly doesn't automatically doom a host venue in its quest for future majors. But marquee names, tortuous twists and turns, a flourishing finish, and a singular snapshot for our minds' eyes to take home with us as a souvenir all but guarantee a rookie major site gets the call again.

Pinehurst '99 had them all on Sunday alone.

You want names? Start with champion Payne Stewart, one of golf's most iconic figures, fending off the best players of that era: Phil Mickelson, already one of, if not, the best player without a major; Vijay Singh, who'd won the PGA the previous August; the once and future king Tiger Woods; and then-No. 1 David Duval, who had ascended to the pinnacle of the rankings with four wins already that year, including The Players Championship. In fact, of the 11 who finished in the top 10 (two tied for 10th), nine were in the top 22 in the world rankings going in. The two that weren't: Tim Herron, who had won Bay Hill three months before; and Billy Mayfair, whose two wins in 1998 included a win over Tiger Woods at the L.A. Open that to this day remains the only playoff loss in Woods' career.

Twists and turns? Stewart's par putt at 16 Sunday had plenty of both. Then there was Tiger's birdie-bogey-par finish, which could've easily been two shots better, that left him two off the winning score. And that's to say nothing of the twisting and turning Amanda Mickelson - Phil's negative-one-day-old daughter - was up to inside her mother, Amy; moves which elicited similar gyrations in Phil's tummy. In fact, the expectant first-time father was on record saying that if his beeper gyrated with news that Amy was going into labor, he would leave immediately, regardless of where he was on the course or on the leaderboard. (The next day, Amanda was born; and beepers, for all practical purposes, were dead.)

Flourishing finish? For sure. Stewart saved par with an absurdly snaking 25-footer at 16. Both Mickelson and Stewart feathered in a pair of beauties to the par 3 17th; Mickelson missed, Stewart sank for a one-shot lead with one hole to play. Tiger's birdie at the impossibly difficult 16th pulled him even for the championship, only to drop one with a lip out for par at 17 and a purely struck but wide-left birdie attempt at 18. Stewart's pitch out from the rough at 18, Mickelson's near-make for birdie, and Stewart's uphill par putt for glory - all of which occurred in an eerie mist that looked lifted, cleaned, and placed directly from Donald Ross' native Scotland.

Singular snapshot? One of the most instantly recognizable scenes in the sport's history, Stewart's one-legged lunge into immortality. A bronze likeness of that pose, a statue of Stewart's unlimitations, now stands sentinel on the Pinehurst property.

In examining Sunday's final pairing, the tendency is to remember that incarnation of Mickelson as the err apparent to Avis, the nickname Stewart was derisively given because of how often he finished second. But whereas Stewart had a history of falling short, including the year before when he couldn't close out the Open at Olympic Club, Mickelson on that Sunday in '99 had no real scar tissue to speak of. This was before the close calls in Grand Slam events piled up. Pre-PGA in 2001, before Bethpage in 2002. The truth is, Mickelson's problem prior to his breakthrough at the 2004 Masters was less that he frequently blew chances in big events and more that he didn't really put himself in position to win very often. His most famous flops in major championships actually came after he'd become a major champion. Pinehurst was his first best chance to win one of the four biggies. And that is evident in the replay of that final round. Mickelson, while intently focused, is brimming with the confidence of a guy who believes he is about to win. When I watch that video, I don't see a guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Actually I do. But it's not Mickelson; it's Tiger Woods.

The erstwhile No. 1 has been so long stuck on 14 majors that we forget he wasn't born on that number. In fact, at Pinehurst that year, he was tied for last among major winners with one. And in that final round, he wore on his face - especially in the closing moments - the look of a guy whose self-established expectations weren't a buoy but a burden. Tiger was more than two years removed from his epic but only major championship, the 12-shot Masters romp in 1997 that made us all wonder if he'd ever lose again. By the '99 U.S. Open, the pressure - from within and without - to win another major had escalated. And you can see it in his face. This was Tiger's first legit chance to win one of the big four since the '97 Masters. And the Slam slipped away.

As crazy as it sounds, you could've made a reasonable case upon exiting Pinehurst that Sunday night that Mickelson's prospects of winning a major championship were almost as good as Woods'. We know now, of course, that Phil's and Tiger's paths would diverge into the Woods dominance that made the latter one of the greatest of all time. In August of '99, Woods won the PGA and backed it up with the last three majors of 2000 and the first of '01. By the time Mickelson became a major champion, following that 2004 Masters title with another in 2006 sandwiched around a 2005 PGA, Woods was winning them at an even greater clip: the 2005 Masters and British and 2006 British and PGA.

Had you tried to envision a 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst in the aftermath of the first one in '99, vis-a-vis the four principal characters - Stewart, Mickelson, Woods, and Pinehurst - the only reality you would've believed is that the course would be hosting its third national championship. With the champion long and tragically gone, Tiger an endangered species, and Mickelson with three kids but still no U.S. Open trophies, it proves the truth - both ancient and contemporary - is stranger and, sometimes, more painful than fiction.