- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — The truly determined player prepares for the U.S. Open by hitting practice balls until his calluses develop calluses. And if he really Wants It Bad, he might show up a few days early and sneak in a couple of extra practice rounds. Whatever his approach, though, it usually involves playing golf. Makes sense, right?

Tell that to Peter Hedblom, the 34-year-old Swede who shot a 66 yesterday at Pinehurst No. 2 — not only the low round of the tournament so far but one stroke better than anybody managed here in ‘99. Hedblom got himself ready for the festivities — his first Open, incidentally — by not playing golf.

I know what you’re thinking: What is that, some Zen thing he picked up on the Asian Tour, a tip he got from the Dalai Lama? Nope, the reason he went the less-is-more route this week is that, basically, he had no choice. The folks at Continental Airlines misplaced his clubs.

Hedblom pulled into Pinehurst on Saturday night, but he didn’t see his golf bag — which was traveling, as always, Luggage Class — until 40 minutes before his practice round Tuesday. He did his best to improvise, however, while the Case of the Missing Clubs was being solved. Rather than rent a set, which he feared might throw off his swing, he got a sand wedge from the Taylor Made people, found himself a putter, and “just walked around [Sunday] and chipped and putted, which you need to do on this golf course.”

And how did he prep for the Big Event the next day? “I don’t know what I did.”

Swell, just swell. The other 155 contestants are polishing their games, bringing them to a high gloss, and Hedblom is wandering around with two loaner clubs.

“It wasn’t the best preparation,” he admitted.

In the first round, predictably, he played like a guy who had only recently been reunited with his clubs. Starting on the back nine, he bogeyed four of his first six holes en route to a 77 that left him in grave danger of being cut. But then he came out yesterday and … magic.

It’s funny, Hedblom said. If it had been “a normal European Tour event,” he would have teed off at 7 a.m., still wallowing in self-pity about the day before, and played his round in a virtual vacuum — no fans, no excitement, no nothing. But because it was the U.S. Open, there were “a lot of people” on the course, even at that early hour, and it gave him “a great feeling.” By the end of the day, he had fought his way into the top 20, a mere five shots behind the leaders.

“I’m happy to play in the U.S. Open,” he gushed. “I’m never going to give in. I’m just going to try to the bitter end.

Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, went in the other direction, following his hopeful first-round 69 with a disastrous 77. It made you wonder whether Lefty might have been wound a little too tight for this Open, whether he would have been better off losing his clubs for a few days — like Hedblom did — and decompressing a bit.

Some, after all, were convinced this would be Mickelson’s Open, his belated consolation prize for losing to Payne Stewart on the 72nd hole in ‘99. Phil may well have harbored such thoughts himself. He certainly seemed to have brought his “A” game Thursday. when he was one of just nine players to finish under par.

But early in Round 2 he went into a bogey-bogey-par-bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey free fall, the kind of Total Unraveling you only see in the U.S. Open. So much for his chances.

“It’s a lot different from what I prepared for,” he said. “The fairways are so much harder. They’re rolling them, and the balls are going right through. I hit it well today, and so I was just a couple of inches in the thick rough or a couple of feet in the thick rough.”

Believe it or not, he went on, he would have shot a lower score if his teeballs had been worse, had wound up “20, 30 yards in the stuff.” He got better lies there than he did when his drives landed “barely in the rough.”

That pretty much clinches it, wouldn’t you say? I mean, if Mickelson’s clubs had been lost in transit, if somebody had forgotten to put them on his private plane after the Booz Allen and they got left behind in Washington, he’d probably still be in contention in the Open. Why? Because the forced vacation would have either (a) set him up to shoot a 66, Hedblom-style, or (b) discombobulated his driving so badly that he would have hit balls “20, 30 yards in the stuff” — which is where he would have preferred to be yesterday.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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