Tiger and the Boys at Bethpage
by Jeff Skinner
Monday at the US Open started off under rainy skies but the weather cleared and by noon it was quite sunny and warm. The course was very wet due to a hard rain in the early morning. Practice round days are unpredictable when it comes to seeing the players. The “Practice Pairings” don’t always come off as advertised. Some players opt to play only nine holes, as Tiger did, others elect not to play or join up with a different group. It’s a “take what you can get day” for the fans. There were enough players on the course after a rain delay in the morning to keep you hopping from hole to hole to catch a glimpse of your favorite players. I spent most of the day jumping around and got to see plenty of play and pick up a few colorful stories and rumors.
Bethpage Black offers some challenges to the fans outside the ropes. It is quite hilly and many of the areas are very steep. It makes it a little bit of a chore on some holes to maneuver up and down all the elevation changes especially when they are wet. Also, the course does not return to the clubhouse until the eighteenth hole. So if you are trying to catch up to someone out on the course, you can’t wait for them to return to the clubhouse “at the turn”. The tenth hole is just about as far away from the first tee as you can get. So when I arrived and heard that Tiger was already out on the course and probably at the sixth hole I hustled out to try and catch him. After a long walk out to the tenth tee I waited there along with a few thousand close friends, all waiting for Number One. We could see him practice putting on the ninth green, but then he walked off the green in the wrong direction. It was then that I realized I had wasted a good number of steps. Tiger likes to play nine holes and then head to the range, and that is what he did. He headed back in, to the disappointment of most of the crowd at the tenth. So we all cheered and watched Jim Furyk who was on the tenth tee. A few marshals confirmed that Woods had done the same thing on Sunday. He came early, played nine, hit the range, disappeared for a few hours and then was back in the late afternoon for another nine holes. The rumor going around today was that Tiger showed up on the first tee at about 6:15am in the pouring rain. He was ready to tee off, had the ball in the ground, when he was approached by an official. After a brief discussion Woods packed up and left the tee box. He was told the course was not playable at that time and he would not be allowed to start then. Supposedly, Woods was not thrilled. He was back around 700am and teed off then. There is no confirmation of the rumor that the official who confronted Woods was last seen cleaning the Port-a-Johns.
At the putting green I came across David Duval and he had a flock of fans watching every putt. Duval was grooving his putting stroke under the experienced eye of “The Head Doctor.” Dr. Bob Rotella was with David as he putted and they would talk every two or three putts. I don’t know if this is the first time Duval has worked with Rotella, but this may be what Duval needs. Rotella can get most players to be a little more confident with their games.
On the putting green at the same time was the smiling Darren Clarke. He was being assisted by the best caddie ever to be on The Big Break. “Eddie” of the Golf Channel’s Big Break series was on the bag for Clarke and they were obviously having a good time. I even watched Clarke and Rotella get together and it looked like they were swapping phone numbers of their cell phones. A few minutes later when Rotella returned to Duval, I watched Clarke text a message into his phone and start to laugh. Right then Rotella pulled out his phone, smiled and looked over at Clarke. Are these guys texting each other? What is this eighth grade math class? Anyway, Clarke got a big charge out of it.
In the afternoon practice rounds, the crowd had a very good group to follow. Clarke, his buddy Lee Westwood, his countrymen Rory McIlroy and heart throb Adam Scott teed it up under a sunny sky. That’s quite an attractive group and they drew a large gallery. On the third hole, a two hundred and thirty yard par three, I watched them tee off from an area near the green. We were lucky we were hugging the ropes when Rory McIlroy sprayed one so far right it was over the gallery. As he approached us we all speculated he’d pick it up or play another. This ball was thirty yards off line and sitting on a small patch of grass on the other side of a service path. When he surveyed his predicament and drew a club I figured it out. This was a money match. The boys had a few bucks or pounds or Euros or whatever on the outcome and they were to play by the rules. My suspicion was confirmed when we watched all four of them play out their first balls and then start to practice on the green. Nothing like a little skins game among friends.
As I was leaving I witnessed something I had never seen before and I would think might occur at our local driving range rather than The Open. The driving range is ringed with fans and a few of us are watching Nick Watney and Drew Kittleson hit balls from the very end of the driving range. Kittleson is an amateur from Florida State and he was stroking them out there from the last spot on the end of the range. As Drew was in mid swing, Kenny Perry made the mistake of cutting through between Watney and Drew to walk off the range. Perry was kind of looking back over his shoulder as he walked and obviously did not realize where he was. When Kittleson started his downswing Perry actually was inches in front of him. Kittleson and Perry collided with the club and ball narrowly missing Perry’s head. We all stood there dumbfounded as Perry kept walking asking Kittleson “Are you all right?’ as he headed off the range. I don’t think he realized how close he was to catching an iron or a ball or both right in the head. Kittleson stood there with his arms out as if to say “What just happened?” It took him awhile to regain his composure. That would have made some headline:” Perry Takes a Ball to the Head.”