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Archive for Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Commentary: Final look at No. 18 leaves sour taste

June 21, 2006

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— Memories were all that lingered from behind the 18th green at Winged Foot on the morning after a debacle that brought ridicule to Phil Mickelson, a major setback to Colin Montgomerie and a U.S. Open title to Geoff Ogilvy.

Empty bleachers on both sides gave it the feel of a ghost town.

The silence was broken by the occasional clanging of a hammer against metal poles as workers dismantled the scoreboard. And while the magnet letters that spelled out the victims' names had already been removed, evidence remained in the numbers that stretched across the final few holes. It wasn't hard to figure out whose scores they were.

With an unobstructed view down the fairway, you could easily retrace the blunders.

There was Montgomerie in the fairway, choosing a 7-iron instead of a 6-iron from 172 yards to allow for adrenaline. In his 15 years of pursuing a major championship, he never had a better chance than this. He was tied for the lead, needing only to find the middle of the green to catch a slope that would feed the ball about 15 feet from the hole.

"What kind of shot was that?" Monty said moments after he made contact.

To stand in the mangled grass short and right of the 18th green is to appreciate what must have been going through Monty's mind. Only the top flag can be seen over the mound, and you're lucky to see the top half of the ball when it sits at the bottom of 6-inch rough.

It was more difficult to picture where Mickelson was because of the trees that separate the rough from the corporate tent. But from behind the green, you can imagine thousands of fans in the grandstands and lining both sides of the fairway, all of them so full of love for him that they eagerly awaited the sight of a white pellet appearing out of nowhere, carving toward the green.

If they were too far away to hear the ball being struck, they surely heard the groan from those standing next to the tree it hit.

To see Mickelson walk toward the bunker and find his ball plugged in the sand like a poached egg was to see Jan Van de Velde with his pants rolled up to his knees as he stood in Barry Burn at Carnoustie.

It was simply hopeless.

"I just can't believe I did that," Mickelson said.

He said that five times after his double bogey, and everyone believed him.

Reality sets in when you walk through the clubhouse at Winged Foot, down a hallway lined with glass cases that hold newspaper clippings, programs, trophies and framed pictures of the U.S. Open champions who survived the West Course.

Bobby Jones. Billy Casper. Hale Irwin. Fuzzy Zoeller.

Geoff Ogilvy?

Mickelson's picture should be next to those champions, right?

That's what this U.S. Open was all about. He was going for his third straight major, the third leg of the career Grand Slam, and there was nothing Tiger Woods could do about it.

Mickelson had studied every nook and cranny of Winged Foot in nearly a dozen practice sessions before the tournament.

Course architect A.W. Tillinghast once described the holes as men - all similar from the neck down, the greens "showing the same varying characters as human faces." Lefty knew them so well he could have picked them out of a police lineup from 200 feet away with a patch over one eye.

"I'm such an idiot," Mickelson said, which became tabloid headlines the next morning.

Jim Furyk also goofed. He studied his 5-foot par putt from one side, with caddie Mike Cowan eyeballing it from the other. Funny, but Furyk said so eloquently at the start of the week that no matter how well Winged Foot suited his eye, he still had to hit the shots.

He missed the most important one of all.

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