Grounded at winged foot

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September 20, 2020 5:00 AM

The hardest challenge in golf is the fickle nature of the game combined with the four-day format of an event

Thomas Pieters lines up his putt on the fifth green during the second round of the US Open golf tournament at Winged Foot Golf Club, New York (Danielle Parhizkaran–USA TODAY Sports)Thomas Pieters lines up his putt on the fifth green during the second round of the US Open golf tournament at Winged Foot Golf Club, New York (Danielle Parhizkaran–USA TODAY Sports)

Such a thrill. Watching players maul the West Course at Winged Foot, New York, in the opening round of the US Open, was deeply satisfying. Schadenfreude, you ask? Absolutely. Those sadistic USGA officials who take such pride in setting up, brutal, spirit-destroying, golf courses for the ‘toughest test of golf,’ deserve the tables to be turned on them every once in a while. And it really does happen quite rarely. It was fabulous watching 20-odd PGA Tour players, definitely the underdogs in this situation, shoot rounds under-par. And finally, it was even better to see armchair commentators, on television and social media, all of whom were predicting an over-par tournament, to end up with egg on their faces.

Thank God this column appears on a Sunday. Not that your columnist’s job is that much better. Imagine writing a column about a Major Championship with two rounds yet to go. Do it a few times and you’ll stop trying to predict winners; I mean speculating isn’t fun in golf—you’ve got at least a 100 players who can win an event.

What is the hardest challenge in golf? I’m not referring to players like you and me—that list would overshoot the word limit on this column—but to professionals. I think, it’s the fickle nature of the game combined with the four-day format of an event. I mean you can have a good day, or a bad one. But what does it take to pick yourself up and play a good round the day after you’ve had a rotten day on the course? This is what world number three Justin Thomas had to say after his three-over 73 in the second round. “Today easily could have been a 6 or 7 [over par],” he said after the round. “I’m proud of myself for how I hung in.”

Now Thomas shot the lowest first round ever at a US Open at Winged Foot on the first day—a five-under 65. But on Friday as Thomas shook his head and muttered to himself after double-bogeying the first hole(his 10th hole of the day) to go five-over-par, his caddie, 63-year-old Jimmy Johnson, calmed him down. “Be patient,” the 63-year-old Johnson reminded Thomas. “Just keep playing your game. Good things will happen.” Precisely the kind of advice the 27-year-old needed; the sane counsel seemed to work: Thomas recovered to finish at 3-over 73 and tied for third at 2-under going into the weekend. On an aside, this is why caddies make the money they do on pro tours. Not for carrying bags, or giving lines on greens, but for giving the player something he does not possess. In this case, wisdom acquired four decades of playing and caddying.

To be fair to Thomas, the kid has really been working on his mental game. Just a few years ago, he would have played more aggressively to make up for lost ground and often ended up worse. At the 2017 British Open, he shot a first-round three-under 67 and a second-round 80 to miss the cut. A year later, he shot a two-under 69 on Thursday. All he had to do was get through Friday. Instead he shot a 77. Since then Thomas has really reined in his tendency to go for the really low-percentage shots, and that’s showed up in his consistent results, especially on the big stages.

Not that everyone fared as well: Winged Foot was expected to chew and spit out the world’s best players, and poor Phil Mickelson bore the full brunt of the course’s fury. It doesn’t help that Winged Foot is the scene of the veteran’s most crushing defeat in 2006. That’s when an errant drive on the last hole of the US Open led to a double bogey and he lost the event by a stroke. Mickelson couldn’t find the fairway, or figure out the greens; when he blocked his drive again on the 18th and managed to salvage a bogey, he finished up at nine-over-par, tied for second-to-last at the US Open.”I drove it poorly, and I putted poorly,” he said summing up the day. About the only good news was that there’s no way he’ll have a chance to give away another US Open, the way he did the last time at Winged Foot.

The second round carnage claimed a number of top runners: Woods shot a seven-over 77 to miss the cut applied at 10-over-par. Only three players broke par in the second round with Patrick Reed’s hard-fought 70 placing him at the top of the leaderboard at four-under. Bryson De Chambeau’s much vaunted length of the tee helped him bluster his way to a two-under 68, the best round of the day. Not just the course setup—the pins were much tighter—but the wind too contributed to the high scores. It didn’t just pick up but actually changed directions. Groups that teed off early started in relatively placid conditions but things quickly got exponentially harder. No one exemplified that change of circumstance as Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who shot 2 under on the front nine to reach six-under for the solo lead. The wind undid all that good work on the back nine where Thomas made six bogeys to finish up with a four-over 74. “My scorecard says it all,” Pieters sighed.

Tonight the ‘toughest test of golf,’ comes to an end and it’s certain to be a battle of attrition. The US Open is a bruising, very American version of the sport; kind of fun to watch, if you take pleasure in the misery of the top pros in the world. Why should they be spared the angst.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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