Saturday, June 21, 2008

US Open 18 Hole Playoff: A Fan's Perspective

I didn’t even consider that I’d have a chance to go the playoff on Monday on my way to work, but once there found that they had plenty of playoff tickets available for employees. I thought about NOT going, since I went to the tournament on Friday, and I figured it would be really crowded. But what the heck, I thought, when would I even get to see a playoff in a major championship again?

We had a parking pass for the North Course lot, so we parked and walked a short distance to the course entrance. We had listened to the radio broadcast on the way down, so we knew to try to get to the 5th or 6th hole. As soon as we got through the main entrance and passed by the huge merchandise tent, we could see the gigantic gallery along the north side of the 6th fairway, and knew that that was a good place to start looking.

Upon arriving at the throng of people, we decided to move west along the fairway toward the 6th tee box. It was only about 9:30am, but I nearly knocked over a man carrying a beer as I walked along the cart path looking up to read the leader board. His slurred, ‘Pardon me’, suggested that his nearly spilled beer was only the latest in a long string of beers so far this morning for him.

They still had the fairway crossing open to cross over the south side of the 6th fairway, and based on my recon work from Friday’s round I suggested we cross. From the south side, we’d have easier access (I thought) to the rest of the course. Once on the south side we found a nice shady spot with good sightlines to the fairway looking west. We were surrounded by young and old, pudgy and athletic, men and women, all hoping for a good view of Tiger and Rocco’s tee-shot landing area and their subsequent approach shots. We weren’t kept waiting for long.

We heard a roar from the 5th green and knew someone made a birdie or saved par with a long putt, and that it wouldn’t be long before they teed off on #6. When we saw the spotters along the rough on the south side of the 6th fairway trot into position we knew the tee shots were on their way. Tiger’s was first, landing gently and quietly in the fairway, left side, just past the bunkers. It belied what we were certain was a controlled explosion on the tee as Tiger uncoiled like spring wound too tightly.

Rocco’s ball fell to earth next, just below the apex of a small swale, about 40 yards behind Tiger. At least he had an uphill lie. We made our way east about 60 yards to a small hill where we had a decent view of the green, and watched as the players walked up to applause and cheers.

Rocco’s approach shot was a bit long and left him just off the putting surface. Tiger, of course, was about 8 feet with what looked from where I stood to be right-to-left break for birdie. Rocco chipped to what looked like was going to be way short of the hole, but it managed to roll just close enough to the edge of the upper tier and then picked up speed as it found the slope down to the hole. He had a couple feet for par, and Tiger, of course, made the birdie putt to go to Even, while Rocco’s par kept him at +1.

After Tiger’s putt we rushed with rest of the gallery to the west side of the 7th fairway, hoping for a view of the tee shots. It was way too crowded, however, and all we saw through the heads and hats was Tiger’s ball dancing in the fairway just right of the bunkers along the left side. It rolled on toward the hole. I couldn’t see where Rocco’s ball landed, and we watched as they two players and the huge entourage of officials, security people, TV reporters and cameramen, still photographers, and other apparent hangers-on made their way down the narrow path in the rough before the beginning of the fairway past us. We, along with thousands of our fellow sweaty fans slowly inched our way across the fairway crossing, since they had the west side of the 7th closed to foot traffic.

We decided to get several holes ahead, and tried to make our way past the confluence of the 8th and 17th greens, and the 18th tee. There was a huge gallery there, and a narrow path. We pushed through the crowd only to find out that the officials had already roped-off the path from the 8th green to the 9th tee, and we were stuck. Couldn’t go back, couldn’t go forward. By that time, fortunately, the players were hitting up onto the 8th, so we had to wait only until they’d putted out and moved, along with their seemingly growing entourage, over past the 18th tee to the 9th. I finally understood how people in large crowds suffocate and die when any sort of panic ensues. It was stiflingly hot, very little wind, and very claustrophobic. I thought I was going to have a panic attack.

Finally the ‘The Entourage’ passed and the ropes opened so we could continue our excruciatingly slow, inching-along-crush-of-humanity route to hopefully more open air and open spaces.

We made our way south between the 9th and the 15th holes, and could see far to the southwest the nearly empty grandstands at the 12th green. We decided to try to get there and see one “quality” hole instead of tiny glimpses of the action between the sun-screened ears and the floppy hats and ‘US Open Torrey Pines 2008’ ball caps.

Along the way we crossed behind the 13th green and found that the grandstands for #11 still had space, so we climbed the stairs and found some good seats. Since #12 was a long walk out of the way, and we had a nice spot there at 11, we bagged the idea of going out to the 12th grandstands.

The wind was light and variable, but the sun beat down on us like a weight. I don’t know what the humidity was, but it felt very high, and the marine layer was occasionally spilling wispy clouds over our heads. The cold beers people kept bringing up the stairs looked very good and very tempting.

We waited almost 15 minutes for the players to get through #10, and the leaderboard across the fairway said Tiger had a 3 shot lead. Some of the spectators had the little hand-held TV’s that you could get by showing your American Express card, and they were keeping us all informed of what was happening. There was an exciting, tension-filled air about the whole day.

Finally, we could see Tiger’s almost neon red shirt on the elevated tee box of #11, nearly 220 yards away. I don’t know what club he used, but it sailed high and landed softly in the left green-side bunker, about 20 feet from the pin. Rocco’s ball landed just short of pin-high, 3 feet right, and rolled to about 18 feet past the hole.

The gallery cheered loudly for both Rocco and Tiger as they approached the green. The green sloped downhill and to the right from where Tiger stood in the bunker, and had a slightly right hand break. Tiger surveyed his shot from every angle then lofted a sand wedge shot high and soft that rolled about 10 feet past the hole. The sound of camera shutters clicking and whirring immediately after he swung was surprising.

Rocco putted next and had a great putt but left it s tiny bit short—but only had a tap-in for par.

I was surprised at how long Tiger took to study his par putt. He looked at it from every angle, slowly circling around the hole and ball like a shark trying to decide how attack and eat his prey. You could almost hear the gears whirring and calculations humming from across the 30 yards between us.

Despite this study, however, he missed the putt and had to settle for a bogey. We watched them walk the 30 yards or so over to the 12th tee, where Rocco hit his normal, average-Joe sounding drive, and Tiger once again exploded on the ball. It sounded like a howitzer going off. He didn’t like the shot though, as it appeared to be going right of the fairway.

After they walked west off the 12th tee, we made our way over toward the 14th hole, hoping to get ahead of the crowd and get another grandstand seat. The 14th looked interesting, because the tees were set way forward, to 277 yards, but was still a par 4. Tiger would only need a 3 wood for that, and Rocco could hit it with his driver. Unfortunately, the gallery around the 14th had grown considerably since we’d walked past earlier, so we continued on hoping for something in the stands on 18.

The 15th was not quite as crowded, and from the west side of the green we found a good spot to sit and wait. We also could see that people were still being allowed up and into the 15th grandstands, so we decided to see if we could get seats as well. We made our way left around the north end of the green and over to the staircase between the northern and central grandstands east of the 15th. The officials ushered us further south where we found seats near the very top of the grandstands. It was a bit shady, and there was a nice breeze.

From where we sat, immediately east of the 15th green nearly pin-high, we could see the 16th tee to the west, the 15th fairway to the south, and, through the trees, the western edge of the 14th green. The 15th green in front of us had a large bunker between the green and us, and across the green and slightly north of us was another. Even further away to our southwest we could see the tee box for the 13th hole, and as we sat down we could just make out Tiger’s red shirt moving around as a red dot.

The next 30 minutes or so we spent moving over and standing up to let others pass to find their own seats in the stands. Some of our fellow spectators had the American Express TV’s, and they were keeping us informed on the player’s progress. The gallery along the west side of the 15th fairway and green continued to grow as more and more people gathered.

One enterprising lady went down to the concession stand and brought back a box full of burgers, hot dogs, and beer, and sold them to anyone who wanted them. She sold them for what she paid, so I guess she wasn’t really that enterprising after all, but nice nonetheless.

People cheered when the leaderboard across the fairway changed from Rocco +3, Tiger +2 to Rocco +2, Tiger +1 through 13 holes. Cheers again and shouts of “ROCCO” as later the scores changed again to Rocco +1, Tiger +1 through 14.

A large tree along the 15th fairway blocked our view of the tee shots, but we could see Rocco’s ball land and hop a few times in the fairway just short of the tree. We waited for Tiger’s ball to fall, and looked 40 yards further up the fairway for it. When we didn’t see it, but then saw ten or twelve officials run east across the fairway toward the 9th fairway, we knew Tiger must have sliced it well right off the tee. There was a line of trees to our south that obscured our view of where his ball landed, so we had to rely on our fellow grandstanders with TV’s to tell us what exactly happened. Tiger had sliced his drive into a fairway bunker on the 9th fairway, but apparently had some sort of shot to the green. We later learned that it was about 175 yards to the pin.

Despite Tiger’s errant tee shot, Rocco was still furthest from the green and he hit first. The traveling photographers set up along the west side of the fairway and were jostling for position. Rocco’s approach shot went very high, and from my vantage point, looked like it would fall short of the green. However, it landed just on the putting surface and rolled behind the pin to about 25 feet. Raucous cheers and loud cries of “ROCCO” rose to an almost deafening level.

Now it was Tiger’s turn. We could barely make him out through the tree line down the east side of the fairway. The gallery had parted, leaving him an alley toward the green. It looked to me like he would have to fade the ball from left to right to hit the green, and after what seemed like a longer-than-usual pre-shot routine, he made his swing and we turned our heads to see where the shot would land. My buddy, after seeing Rocco’s shot, thought Tiger had no chance to even find the green, but I thought that a long bunker shot for tour pros in general and Tiger in particular aren’t much of a big deal. I had an eerie feeling that he’d not just find the green, but that he’d be inside of Rocco’s shot.
The gigantic gallery was hushed, waiting for what seemed like too long for the ball to get to wherever it was heading, ‘Where is it?’, I thought. But then down it came from high above, as if dropped by God, hitting just past pin-high then rolling to 12 feet—yes—inside Rocco’s ball. The gallery roared even louder, and people and photographers rushed up closer to the green looking for a better angle.

The roar of the crowd grew again as the players made their way up the fairway and onto the green, both men tipping their caps in acknowledgment of the enthusiastic fans. It felt more like an NBA playoff than a US Open playoff. The only thing missing was the pounding music and flashing lights.

Tiger marked his ball and Rocco started his pre-shot routine, carefully reading the breaks and judging speed. He walked around the green and looked over his putting line from both sides of the hole, and then went back and looked again from the ball to the hole. The huge gallery was hugely quiet. You could hear yourself breathe, and it was truly amazing that so many people could be so quiet.

Finally he set up, took a couple practice strokes, and then gently stroked the ball toward the hole. As soon as it left his putter face I was certain it would be short. But it must have been slightly downhill, because like the bunny in the TV ads, it just kept on going….and finally dropped gently into the hole.

Again the gallery erupted in cheers and shouts of “ROCCO!!” There were high-fives and handshakes everywhere, and it seemed like the impossible had just happened.

As the noise level slowly receded, Tiger began his pre-putt routine. He placed his ball and removed his mark, and then started to study the break of the putt. This part of his game is something you can’t really pickup on watching him play on TV, because only once in a while do they take the time to show the whole thing. As he did on every other putt, he looks down the line of the putt, then stands and very slowly walks a large circle around the ball and hole, viewing the break from every angle. His stride was actually more of a strut than walk, his eyes locked on the ball and hole, a machine focused on calculating its objective.

The huge throngs of people were rapt in their silence, no one wanting to exhale for fear of interrupting his concentration. At last he stepped up to the ball, took two quick practice strokes, then addressed the ball and putted it. It looked at first like it was in, but it just barely missed to right of the hole and slid about two feet past the hole. He had to settle for par, and Rocco had a one stroke lead.

We watched them tee of on 16 before heading over to try to find a place to watch the action on 18. Unfortunately, the grandstands were completely full, and while we circled the grandstands surrounding the 18th green looking for a place to stand and watch, we realized everyone else had the same idea. It was a crushing crowd, and since I couldn’t come close to seeing any live action, I decided to go over to the air-conditioned comfort of the merchandise tent where they had plenty of big screen TVs where I could watch in comfort.

Rocco shot par the rest of the way, and we all saw Tiger’s spectacular birdie on 18 to force a sudden death playoff on the seventh hole. The seventh—the first sudden death playoff hole— is a dog-leg right hole, which is a difficult for Rocco’s natural right to left shot shape. Tiger’s tee shot was perfect, cutting across the trees on the right and landing just inside the first cut of rough on the right.

Rocco’s tee shot, as expected, went left into a fairway bunker, and I was confident that, short of a miracle, Tiger had just won the US Open again. Rocco’s bunker shot again went left, hit the grandstands, where he got a free drop. His 3rd shot was landed near the pin, but Tiger’s 2nd was just below the hole. Tiger went on to birdie and win the tournament.

It was the most exciting golf I’d ever personally witnessed, and history was made. And knowing now the extent of Tiger’s knee injury (the rest of his season is over as he will undergo reconstructive surgery) makes his victory even more impressive. We can only hope for such excitement in future golf tournaments.

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