As New York completes its fortnight of professional golf-last week’s Buick Classic in Westchester and the 104th U.S. Open champion ship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club this week in Southampton-the three-headed monster of the metropolitan golf scene has been on display in its disparate glory.
Exhibit A: The blue-collar municipal golfer. They play public courses, hack their way through five-hour rounds, and love the game as much as any member of a private club. There’s a lot of them out there, and they’re eager to let the world’s best players know that their golf differs little from the granite fairways and greens of Van Cortlandt Park and Silver Lake.
Listen, Tiger, not for nuthin’, ’cause I know you’re in love, but-and I say this with all due respect here-if you’re gonna beat the Bear for that all-time majors record, you really gotta rethink this marriage thing. You can’t see it now, but it gets hard. When me and Mary got hitched and the kids started comin’, my handicap went from 19 to 25 faster than I could say “automatic two-down presses.”
These are the folks who cheered lustily when Scott Hoch, dressed in perhaps the world’s ugliest golf shirt (and that’s saying something), made a hole-in-one during the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, the Long Island shrine to the golfers who sleep in their cars for a morning tee time. Mr. Hoch’s shirt, featuring the Manhattan skyline, looked like one of those airbrushed T-shirts you’d get at a street festival. But the crowd, with fresh memories of the terrorist attacks which so horribly altered that skyline, loved it.
The screams, whistles and cheers were deafening as he picked the ball out of the cup after his ace. He started to throw the ball into the crowd, but then decided to slip it into his pocket. In a nanosecond, the joyful noise of New York’s lunch-bucket golfers turned into the kind of unadulterated animosity most recently directed at Mets shortstop Kaz Matsui.
Exhibit B: The old-money traditionalist, self-assured and comfortable in the understated grill rooms of the private golf world. Most sports fans don’t realize it, but New York is the linchpin in America’s golf legacy, birthplace of the first golf magazine, The Golfer, in 1897, and a blueblood lifeline to Winged Foot, home of the 2006 Open. In fact, if you include-gasp!-New Jersey, where fabled Baltusrol Golf Club will be home of the 2005 P.G.A. Championship, the New York metropolitan area will host the greatest cluster of major championships ever played in our region.
Along with those courses regularly in the rota of championship golf, there are plenty of other courses loaded with tradition and history in the area. In New York, there’s Quaker Ridge, Sleepy Hollow, Garden City Men’s Club and Apawamis. In Connecticut, there’s the Country Club of Fairfield, Stanwich and Brooklawn. And New Jersey’s Pine Valley is widely regarded as the world’s best course; combine that with Somerset Hills and Plainfield Country Club, and you could host a decade’s worth of world-class tournament golf for the price of a reloaded E-Z Pass gizmo.
At many of these clubs, however, the membership-among the most high-powered decision-makers in the region-prefers that the rest of the golfing population not be let in on their pristine secrets.
And while Shinnecock is regularly among the top 10 in all the published polls of the best 100 courses in the U.S., some locals suggest that the National Golf Links of America, adjacent to Shinnecock, Bridgehampton’s Atlantic Golf Club (the Rees Jones gem, finished in 1992), and the Maidstone Club, the 1891 Bill Tucker design in East Hampton, might be just as good.
In fact, Shinnecock and St. Andrews Golf Club, in Suffern, are founding members of the organization that has become the United States Golf Association, which puts on the U.S. Open and 13 other exclusive events for professionals and amateurs each year. Shinnecock itself is home to two of the most progressive events in golf history (which, again, is really saying something). John Shippen, an African-American who helped build Shinnecock as a teenager, placed fifth in 1896, the second year that the U.S. Open was held and its first time at Shinnecock. He played despite the threat of a boycott by the other competitors. Shinnecock was also the first club in the country to allow women as members.
But it also remains one of the most exclusive clubs in America, a home for the golfer who wouldn’t dream of waiting for a tee time at a public course-even one named Bethpage.
I was playing behind Vijay and in front of Ernie the other day. They were out at the Foot just before the Buick because they’re such fans of the course. It was nice to have them and all, but I really did hope to get in a quick round because the helicopter was waiting, I had to get to the board meeting, and it is fairly likely that I’ll be playing with one of them at Pebble anyway, so we’d have plenty of time to catch up in January.
Exhibit C: the Hamptons crowd. The championship is being played out there, so the golf world will have to forgive them. They know not of what they speak. You’d recognize the type:
I am going to repeat myself, slooooowly, because I so didn’t like how you didn’t get what I was saying. I don’t care how hard you say it is, you’ve got to deliver Tiger to my party. He needs to meet my people. You keep telling me, ‘It’s a major’-like that means something to me. What I’m talking about could do wonders for his endorsement career.
With the championship coming to Long Island for the second time in three years, it’s fair to wonder how this one might, or might not, be different. In 2002, Bethpage became the first municipal course to host a U.S. Open, and golfers learned what New Yorkers knew all along-Bethpage Black is the King Kong of public golf, and it relegated many of the world’s best courses to Fay Wray status as the brutish layout and conditions left Mr. Woods the only player in the field to finish under par. It was also the place where Sergio Garcia, the exuberant Spaniard, was mired in a seemingly unbreakable habit of readjusting his grip before he could actually engage his swing. The crowd took to counting as Mr. Garcia regripped, again and again: 11, 12, 13 . They continued until he swung, and Mr. Garcia, then just 22 years old and in contention, was wrecked by the sort of heckling given to no other golfer not named Colin Montgomerie.
Mr. Garcia, however, won last week’s Buick Classic, in a dramatic three-hole playoff against Padraig Harrington and Rory Sabbatini. (New Yorkers didn’t see the conclusion to this exciting tournament, because ABC cut away from the playoff at 7 p.m. so that it could bring viewers their regularly scheduled episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos .) The fans in Westchester actually were pulling for Mr. Garcia, finally free of that freaky tic-which shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, he has style and a great flair for the dramatic. All he has to do is make some eye contact, crack wise with a heckler, and he’ll pick up a pile of support at Shinnecock.
For all the irreverent give and take that is part of the New York golf experience- Yeah, big deal, I could hit that shot , or I bet he’s never had to sleep in a ’74 Chevelle and then try to break 80 -local fans have a genuine appreciation for the game and its origins. In fact, Shinnecock is one of the few historic courses that hasn’t been relegated to second-class status, if not shunned outright, because it’s deemed too short for today’s players. (In some cases, “too short” means that the course doesn’t possess the extra space needed for colossal merchandise tents, entertaining pavilions for corporate partners or enough driveway space for TV production vehicles). The par-70 course will play 6,996 yards, or roughly 650 yards shorter than Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., home to August’s P.G.A. Championship. And while there will be plenty of discussion of the changes in equipment since the Open was last played at Shinnecock, it’s unlikely that anyone will be overpowered by the course.
Players who hope to be in contention in the final round on Sunday should have been in Westchester last weekend. The lush Westchester Country Club bears precious little similarity to Shinnecock’s windswept links land, but the crowd will be much the same: loud and, well, enthusiastic. Whether it’s the exuberant everyman who saved his money to buy a week’s pass in order to watch the golf and make regular stage-whisper asides to his new friends ringing the green, or the people on expense accounts entertaining clients and chugging beer and acting like they’re at a Giants game, it all comes with the territory for professional golfers in New York. As for that Hamptons crew, they’ll certainly keep quiet, either pouting in the hospitality tents because their cell phones or purse dogs were confiscated, or quietly trying to work on a reservation to Nick & Toni’s or making a late date at the Star Room.
Corey Pavin, a relentless competitor and winner of the Open when he chased a four-wood close to the final hole at Shinnecock in 1995, is looking forward to the return to New York and is even embracing interaction with the fans as he tries to figure out a way to grind out four solid Open-worthy rounds.
“I love coming to New York,” he said. “I like hearing the fans express themselves-as long as they do it at the proper time. It’s great to hear the people yelling stuff out and cheering you on, because they’re so honest. They’re definitely more vocal here than maybe some other places. When I played at Bethpage, people seemed to remember ’95 and cheered me on a lot. I was glad to have the people backing me. But I think it probably will be the same now. So I’m looking forward to enjoying the people and what they have to say.”
Mr. Pavin’s attitude may actually prove one thing: that of all the majors, the U.S. Open might be best suited for New York fans, the ones who cheer on the grinders.
Here’s hoping they pick out some nice shirts.
Ernie Els: A couple of months ago, he was getting loose in anticipation of a playoff at the Masters when Phil Mickelson did his little jump of joy. A two-time Open Champion, the 2002 British Open winner and winner of the Memorial tournament two weeks ago, the South African is playing well enough to dominate this week.
Tiger Woods: The swing’s been quick, the results less than stellar; people are telling him he has to go back to old coach Butch Harmon. Tiger hates to be told what to do-almost as much as he hates to be in a situation where people are wondering what’s going on with his game. The mind is strong, the body willing, but whither the swing?
Phil Mickelson: With his dramatic win at the Masters, the monkey is off his back. That is, unless somebody labels him as the Greatest Left-Handed Player to Win Only One Major Before the Age of 34. Yikes! His artful short game will help him around Shinnecock’s treacherous greens. But he’ll have to adjust his high ball flight to avoid getting caught in the course’s infamous and ever-changing winds.
Darren Clarke: Some are saying this native of Northern Ireland made a big mistake when he got rid of his cigars, Guinness and ample gut. He hasn’t been the factor he hoped to be when he decided to play more American tournaments this year. Still, this week he’ll be playing a course like the ones back home, and he still has a compact swing that the wind can’t destroy.
Padraig Harrington: First of all, let’s get the first name right; it’s pronounced Paw-rick. For you Anglophones and -philes-and we know you’re out there-that’s Irish for Patrick. Ah, but Paw-rick’s mum likes hearing the “d” in his name! So make it Pawd-rick. The Irishman with the farmer’s gait and the, er, deliberate style knows how to play a links course like Shinnecock. Good thing he lost at the Buick last week. Had Mr. Harrington made a short putt on the first playoff hole and denied Sergio Garcia, you wouldn’t see his name listed among the contenders. After all, what are the odds of winning the Buick and the U.S. Open in consecutive weeks?
Vijay Singh: He’s famous for his flawless ball striking, his hours spent on the practice range and, most recently, for introducing a series of dapper cardigans into his golfing wardrobe. But Mr. Singh will need to overcome the fault lines in his game-a sometimes balky putter and a so-so chipping game-if he wants to win on the slick greens of Shinnecock Hills. Mr. Singh is known for his chilly relationship with arch-rival Tiger Woods. Who could resist a Sunday pairing between Mr. Woods and Mr. Singh, with everything on the line? It’s the best kind of golfing rivalry, full of mutual contempt and a quiet, unspoken hatred.
Sergio Garcia: Once hailed as the young European rival to Tiger Woods, the Gary Player to Mr. Wood’s Jack Nicklaus, Sergio Garcia had become another grinder with a lot of promise, a few endorsements but no major championship. Then Mr. Garcia got serious: He changed his swing to add more consistency, and he eliminated the waggle that so annoyed fans, announcers and his fellow competitors. And now he’s winning again, most recently last week in Westchester. The Shinnecock fans will be nicer to him than they were at Bethpage. But would they let him join the club?
David Duval: You could say the former No. 1 in the world and 2001 British Open champion is in a slump. Then again, you could also say that things just haven’t been the same in Rome since the Vandals stopped by for a visit. His game has collapsed, and it has been painful to watch. After a seven-month absence from competitive golf, Mr. Duval-probably the most intelligent player on the P.G.A. Tour-chose to dive right into a major without a warm-up event or six. He’ll either flame out and miss the cut, or prove us wrong and win the damn thing.