Surrender the Green

When Tiger Woods appeared on the tee, the people in the stands by the green—double-fisting Michelobs, red-faced, yelling in Southern golf tongues—started a co-op game of telephone.

I was in the stands last Sunday, June 19, at the 105th U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. Tiger was about 350 yards away down the third hole; I was about 50 feet from the cruelly placed pin. My parents’ home rose up about 50 yards behind me, behind the stands, behind a temporary fence and behind their little wrought-iron gate. They live on the course now, but I didn’t grow up here.

From their balcony, you can see the scoreboard (Tiger was already 2 over) but not the action, and so my mother and father and I gamely, often grumpily, squirmed in our seats while khaki-clad people cursed in earnest and played gallery telephone:

“Tiger’s up! He’s up!” went the ripple through the stands.

“He’s got a driver out!”

“Hey, Doug, driiiiiii-ver!”

“The wind is fine!”

“He’s gonna smack the shit out of it! He’s hittin’ it!”

“Goin’ towards the pine needles!”

“Get down ball! Kick left! Bite! Bite!

Golf fans scream and heckle and damn the ball. But they hold their breath when Tiger Woods is before them; they pray silently and tighten their fists. The spectators were mostly white (as you probably knew), but very little Tiger backlash exists: Everyone loves him, more now since his recent failures. Country-club members may remain the elitists of stereotype and scorn, but golf fans are really all about people like them, the common guy, Average Joe Bogey. This U.S. Open was all about him as well.

What unfolded the final day before looked to be a great story. The leader was the defending champion, Retief Goosen, a South African who looks like Harrison Ford and never, ever changed his expression. They said ice ran through his veins. He was decidedly not American. He was playing great.

Following him was a man named Jason Gore, ranked 818th in the world, who’d somehow managed to qualify for the tournament. No one had ever heard of him. He was a big, fat, emotional man from California, who looked like Chris Farley. By the end of the day, the Joe Bogeys had fallen in love, and many of them found themselves chanting a name they probably never thought they would: “Gore! Gore! Gore!”

The Goose was 3 under, Gore was even, and everyone else was far behind. But it was commonly acknowledged that Tiger or Vijay Singh were good enough to catch up. And then there was a Maori from New Zealand named Michael Campbell, hanging in there, whom no one had seen since he lost the British Open in 1995 to John Daly. It was so nice he was doing well, but on Saturday, mostly, the fans from afar knew him as the dark-skinned guy they kept getting confused with Vijay and Tiger.

Pinehurst, N.C., is a town of Ferraris and pick-up trucks that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and shares airspace with Fort Bragg. It’s where Annie Oakley ran the local gun club, where Civil War re-enactments make the front page, and where Northerners and Southerners both whine that “everyone’s from New Jersey.”

This year’s U.S. Open, in this lazy, beautiful old town, seemed like one big convention of Happy Hackers.

But golfers are much cooler than they were when I was forced to watch golf tournaments at dinnertime in the 1980’s, our meatloaf served on card tables in front of the TV in the family room. To me (I was playing every other sport to avoid the family obsession), the players—in terrible pleated pants and cardboard collars, men like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson—were soft-spoken, potbellied gentleman from a stodgy other world.

These days, pro golfers are slimmer and darker and employ many luscious varieties of the British accent. They wear pinstriped, lean-legged pants and spiky hair. They talk back to the press. They’re not golfers anymore; they’re athletes—a little more accessible and a little more likable.

On Saturday, June 18, Tiger was 2 over on the third hole. He drove his first ball into the rough, and three-putted for bogey. “Keep runnin’, keep runnin’!” a Tiger hater behind me yelled at the ball when he overshot the green. He moved across the green gracefully, more like Rudolph Nureyev than a golfer. After, he stared at the green in confusion, trying to understand the grains of the grass and the curious dips, his remarkable concentration muddled a little bit with frustration.

The greens like overturned saucers were kicking everyone’s ass, and they would the whole tournament. TV cannot do justice to how vicious they were. If you were standing on regular ground, the greens (where the pin is, for those who don’t know) rose up about five to six feet above you, steeply, with deep sand traps carved into the sides of the hills.

Terribly, if you didn’t hit the ball within 30 feet in the center, the chances were good that the ball would roll off the green and back down the fairway, into the sand trap or bobbling around the crowd’s feet.

As a result, the whole tournament was a rush of Ohhhh’s and Oh, noooo’s as the best players in the world failed to keep their ball to the ground or were too wimpy to get it up there in the first place. The most memorable image of the U.S. Open was of those majestic, haughty greens and those forlorn little balls meekly falling off them, too weak to make it to the pin.

So when a player stuck it on the green, as if it had Velcro attached, with enough backspin on the thing to actually go uphill it was nothing less than exhilarating. Even the most die-hard of golf haters—those so sure that no, no, no, golf is not a sport—would find it totally mind-blowing.

Or at least this golf hater did.

Most people think golf is strange. Many despise it. Almost everyone thinks it’s boring.

I grew up on a golf course. My extended family owned it: a short and straight course with snapping turtles in the mucky ponds and a great hill for sledding. It was called Bel-Aire, but it was located in Wall, N.J., a farm town five miles from the beach, where football was the favored pastime.

My father ran the Pro Shop and my uncle ran the course maintenance, and every year they held an “Inside Guys–Outside Guys Tournament,” where the collar shirts faced off the tractor guys. The Pro Shop had one of those old sandwich machines that took quarters and popped out ham-and-cheeses. Old men and cops sat in the fake-paneled back room and smoked and talked town politics and gossip; my father knew who had been arrested and who was having abortions before I did.

I spent my childhood rolling down the fairways. “Family time” meant an after-dinner round of three holes. The sound I most associate with my youth is the chi-chi-chi of old-fashioned sprinkler heads—to me, better than a pool.

The golf course was public and inexpensive. It was also accessible after dark. All kinds of stuff happened out there at night. During a eulogy for a 16-year-old football player killed in a car wreck, his best friend revealed that they’d had their deepest talks on Bel-Aire’s 17th tee. It was beautiful and spooky out there then. My dad said they found all sorts of remnants of sex and fun out there, too.

I started a book club on the golf course, and that was about it. We read Anna Karenina and Helter Skelter. As a teenager, I worked as the hot-dog girl on a claptrap food cart—a Sabrett’s cart we hitched to a Sam’s Club wagon and a gas-powered golf cart—on which I read books between drooling over the Outside guys and slathering ketchup on buns. My father would tell his customers, “Go see my daughter on 4. She’s the Weenie Queen.”

They tipped me generously and ate roll-less dogs in the age of Atkins. I made more money then than I do now.

I said I hated golf, but I played in a father-daughter tournament and we won. Then I went away to play field hockey at a college of New Yorkers; my family sold the golf course; and, while I was away and self-absorbed, they packed up the house and moved to North Carolina.

This golf course, the one my family moved to, Pinehurst No. 2—which Bobby Jones called the “St. Andrew’s of United States golf”—is not like Bel-Aire. Bel-Aire was where the seniors and Bennies (people from New York) played for $18 a round; Pinehurst costs $375. For the Open, the houses were being rented for up to $100,000 to corporations. Those who scored the fairway-side places hitched up little platforms and stuck old rocking chairs on top.

The golf course is lovely. Every hole is ringed with huge, slender pine trees—the super-tall kind with the pine-needle branches just at the top—and the fairways are wide and lush. Six-inch-long needles cover the ground, killing a lot of the grass.

Partaking in a golf tournament at a golf course that resists paving its paths means a lot of dust. “Ya get a more natural feel,” my dad explained. When Tiger rolled down the fairway, the thousands of people following him looked like the exodus from Egypt, the media lugging their cameras, churning up a cloud of dust that blobbed down the fairway until it washed over us in the stands.

The jogging, hungry crowd, angling for a good spot behind the rope, is fanatical and mob-like. Any number of golfing widows could easily get trampled in the dirt and left for the groundhogs.

Golf widows are a great tragedy. I saw lots of men arguing with wives, some in heels, many asking what a “rough” was, yelling at their husbands to wait up, lounging at the “Putterboy Pavilion” as long as they could, to eat and hydrate and sit in the shade. Golf is very much a man’s game, and the long-suffering women dragged to this event were either really annoying or real heroes. They wore pastel Capri pants and Nikes, almost all with layered blond hair-dos and manicured nails.

The men were more uniform—“They all look the same!” cried my mom—in Dockers and golf shirts: Baltusrol, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock. When I looked up at the line of men behind me, up on a small hill, I saw a line of snub noses and fat cigars. Frat boys’ soft hair curled under their baseball caps: Delta Chi, Brigham Young, L.S.U.

Golf hipsters abounded, too: shaggy ’dos and baggy, baggy shorts prim on their hips, slender-fitting collar shirts, somehow worn ironically even though they were the same shirts everyone else had on. Young women showed skin: tiny skirts and halter-tops, Lilly Pulitzer sundresses and strapless shirts.

The course volunteers, those responsible for keeping the crowds at bay and quieted down, were old and jolly and fat in red shirts and black pants. While a player was hitting, they held up their little arms and frowned at the hyperactive frat boys. If a ball was hit into the crowd, they waddled over fast to protect the lie of the ball. When they conferred in groups, laughing and proud, they looked like a little family of ducks.

The restrictions list on the day pass: no cell phones, no cameras, no stools, no televisions, no bicycles, no pets and, lastly, “No weapons (regardless of permit).”

The Ducks let you cross the fairway after a shot, so at any given time, 50 to 100 people on either side faced off in their spikeless golf shoes, armed with periscopes. And then—charge!

“This is like somethin’ out of Spartacus, isn’t it?” my father said gleefully.

“Ben-Hur!” said my Mom.

“Ya, Braveheart,” I muttered, briefly picturing a rabid, bloody golf fan swinging his three-wood over his head.

We’d been making our way to the Putterboy Pavilion, which looked like a senior-citizen prom inside and charged us $36 for some watery cheeseburgers and a few bottles of water. Behind the counter, everyone was black; on the other side, everyone was white, which didn’t seem particularly Southern to me and instead mostly reminded me of Philadelphia. It was around noon, and people were already drinking.

After our meal, we made our way over to the stands; by 2:15, many were wasted. The sun was unbearable. It didn’t rain. I watched young women, stupidly hatless and brazenly sunburned, shrivel up and age 20 years right before my eyes. A man insisted that his beer tray deserved its own seat. I started to smell. By 5 p.m., it was time to go home, watch the rest on TV and get ready to go out on the town.

Saturday night was a Mini Golf Mardi Gras. The Village of Pinehurst is a tiny cross-section of winding roads and Victorian hotels and restaurants with names like the Holly and the Pine Crest and Dugan’s. But the Pine Crest was the Margaritaville of the weekend; they’d set up a huge tent outside with four bars and endless liquor.

My brother, his friends and I made our way over to Dugan’s, where a band played “Sweet Home Alabama” downstairs for a $5 cover charge. We stayed upstairs and drank our beers. On our way out, we noticed a crowd forming behind us, around a Rolls-Royce and a group of men. It was Sergio Garcia, the 25-year-old wunderkind golfer from Spain, with his entourage. Sergio was dressed in baggy black clothes and red sneakers. Blond women flipped their hair around their bare shoulders. A sleeveless, Eurotrash-looking type with slicked-back hair fell into Sergio, giggling. Old men gaped at him with envy. “Imagine that—all those girls,” said one.

Sergio, admittedly, is hot.

One old man fell down in the street, his wife dragging him up by one feeble arm.

Nearby, a tall blond man was on his cell phone trying to organize a car for Sergio, which he hoped would park nearby and play some music.

“Dude, they had to shut the band down because the music was too loud,” said his friend. “You think you’re going to get away with a car playing music?”

The tall blond man shrugged, then suddenly introduced himself. The friend worked for Sergio, the tall blond man was his caddy, and the slick-backed Euro guy was a player on the Barcelona soccer team.

He suddenly didn’t look so trashy.

“Sergio, can he be out like this?” I said.

“Aw, he doesn’t drink. And his tee-time isn’t until 1.”

They headed down to the party tent, middle-aged men trailing after them like children.

Sunday was Father’s Day, and thousands of them were in Pinehurst. It was rather cool for North Carolina in June, and there was the threat of thunderstorms.

Fans divided up into three galleries: the ones that followed Goose and Gore, those that followed Tiger, and those that planted their asses in the stands and didn’t move for hours.

The Goose-Gore gallery had transformed itself into a messy mob of rage and macho bluster; it felt like a Yankees game. They all wanted Goosen to lose; they cheered when he missed his shots and cackled loudly, practically booing. They bellowed Gore’s conveniently short name with self-love and indignation.

The crowd was the undoing of both men. Goosen shot an unspeakable 81, Gore a tragic 84.

Goosen fell apart immediately, bogeying and double-bogeying his way through the first holes. I even saw him slap his leg in anger—revolutionary. Gore was rewarded with a cacophony of love just when he kept it on the fairway. The golf course, though, was their worst enemy—those greens repelling the balls like two magnets.

“Are the greens slow?” I asked. “Are the greens fast? Why is everyone missing the fairways?”

“Because everyone’s playing like shit,” someone said.

Tiger came out bogeying; Vijay made a few birdies and briefly staged a comeback. Michael Campbell sank 15-footer after 15-footer, benefiting from small crowds and quiet confidence, keeping his secrets to himself.

On the ninth hole, a par three, Gore finally fell apart.

He hit the ball left of the green for a chip shot and flew it over to the other side; he left his next chip short, the ball rolling back to meet him. He ended up double-bogeying that hole; Goosen bogeyed it, and the waning, fickle crowd—sensing defeat and desperate for a winner—started craning their necks for Tiger, who, it was rumored, had birdied 7, 10 and 11 and was on the make.

I caught up with Tiger on 15, another par three, the deadly short holes.

Tiger knocked the ball six feet from the pin, suctioning it to the green, dropping it down with such force that it seemed like the air was sucked out of the entire area. There was a brief pause as the muted crowd realized, astonished, that it was not going to move at all, and then roared like I hadn’t yet heard before.

He was back, but as it is in golf, being back often lasts only a short, wonderful time.

He bogeyed the next two, his short game still vanquished by the greens he’d say later he simply couldn’t understand. When he got up to the 18th hole, the green surrounded by huge pulsing stands, he ripped out his driver with such force that the man beside me, whispered, “Aw, shit.” Everyone knew he was going to kill it, and knees knocked in anticipation. He did, and he birdied for a beautiful finish, shaking his head with a smile in regret, knowing that it wasn’t enough to win.

By then, the forgotten Maori, Michael Campbell, had pulled way ahead, and he wasn’t about to screw this one up. He bogeyed 18, but that was O.K.—and when it was over, he cried and threw his ball into the stands. The last time anyone thought he was even a contender was 1995, the year I left New Jersey for college and golf was still a wilderness of wide hips and side-parts. No one—not the Tiger loyalists or the Gore Roarers—begrudged the guy with the black-and-white pinstripes and the sexy accent his $1,170,000 and millions more in endorsements. Golf fans always like the guy who beats the course best.

That night, my family went out for sushi. The town had emptied. The Japanese restaurant looked like a coffee shop: It was carpeted and it served steak. But it had sushi. The special rolls, along with the Boston and the Dragon, were called names like Bogey and Double Bogey. I ordered the Par 72.