- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y.

As train wrecks go, you won’t find a screechier one than the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open. If Jim Furyk, tied for first with four holes to play, wasn’t leaving a 20-foot birdie putt 10 feet short, then Paddy Harrington was squandering a chance at the championship with three closing bogeys. If Colin Montgomerie wasn’t denying himself his long-awaited first major title by doubling 18, then Phil Mickelson was denying himself a shot at the Grand Slam by committing the same ghastly faux pas.

The last hour or so was like an episode of “ER,” bodies being wheeled into the emergency room every few minutes. Good thing it ended when it did yesterday — with surprise winner Geoff Ogilvy, safely in the scorer’s hut at 5 over, watching Mickelson hit his ball everywhere but inside the merchandise tent. Otherwise, the medics would have run out of plasma.

This is what you get when you booby-trap Winged Foot the way the USGA does. Unforgiving fairways, ankle-high rough and postage-stamp greens — coupled, of course, with U.S. Open pressure — are a recipe for disaster. They were in 1974, when champ Hale Irwin shot 7 over here, and they were again this year.

As Montgomerie, who tied for second with Mickelson and Furyk at 6 over, put it — almost too diplomatically — “Par means nothing [at Winged Foot]. … It’s a very demanding test, the most demanding test we’ve ever had, and 285 [Ogilvy’s total] is a great score, because actually it’s [a] par 72, anyway.”

Even if par were 72, though, only five players — Harrington, at 7 over, being the other — would have finished in red numbers. No, what we’re really talking about is an exercise in Failure Management, and that doesn’t exactly make great theater. Unless, that is, you’re turned on by teeth gnashing, club tossing and the like.

Hunter Thompson considered the Kentucky Derby “decadent and depraved.” Me, I’m beginning to wonder if the U.S. Open is un-American. I’m not saying this because the last three winners have been a South African, a New Zealander and now an Australian. I’m saying this because, well, America is about risk. It’s about getting on a boat in 1620 with your malnourished family and scant belongings, sailing across the Atlantic to the New World and not being entirely sure you won’t fall off the edge of the Earth. It’s not about dialing back on your driver, trying to punch your ball into a narrow fairway, then hitting to the middle of the green and lagging your putt — if you’re lucky — somewhere in the vicinity of the hole.

But this, alas, is what the Open has mutated into, a four-day Carnival of Caution that too often brings out the worst — and the wuss — in golfers. Sorry, but America isn’t about breaking even, about level par. America is about loosening your top button and going for it. If America was about breaking even, the French franc would still be legal tender in New Orleans.

David Toms complains about feeling uncomfortable at the Masters because it’s the club, not the players, that’s the center of attention. Hey, David, at least the Greencoats set up Augusta National so you can get a birdie once in a while. The USGA just dispenses one teaspoon of castor oil after another — 18 a day for four days (if you’re fortunate enough to last that long).

Mickelson has been playing as well as anybody in the last 20 years — anybody besides Tiger Woods, anyway — and Winged Foot didn’t just wing him, it might have mortally wounded him.

“This really stings,” he said. “… This hurts more than any tournament [disappointment] because I had it in my hand.” Of his double-bogey at the end, the one that featured a tee shot off a corporate tent and another shot off a tree, he professed to be “still in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that. I’m such an idiot.”

It’s not like great golfers haven’t goofed before. Heck, Arnold Palmer lost a Masters in the same hideous fashion — a double-bogey on the 72nd hole. But this was one of those seminal moments for Lefty.

Woods, rusty from months of inactivity and still dealing with the death of his father, bombed out here, didn’t even make the cut. That left the stage entirely to Phil, who finally, at the age of 36, seemed poised to challenge Tiger’s supremacy. Capturing his third straight major title might not have vaulted him to the top of the computer rankings, but it would have made him No. 1 in minds of many fans.

But the opportunity has been lost. For all the drivers at his disposal, Mickelson couldn’t find the fairway in the final round, hit just two of them all day.

“This is going to take a little while to get over,” he said. “This one is pretty disappointing.”

Oh, swell. Now Tiger and Phil are both hurting. What a great Open this was.

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