The People's major
June 18, 2009
Bethpage State Park's Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y., will be the focal point of a watching world when the 109th U.S. Open Championship begins today. That's a long way from its humble beginnings.
Bethpage's five golf courses are products of President Franklin Roosevelt's depression-era Works Projects Administration, a program whose end wasn't putting greens but putting people to work. Pay was about $1 a day.
That's why the Black Course came to be known as the People's Country Club. The U.S. Golf Association put up $3 million to renovate and upgrade the Black in 1997, but it remains government owned and New York residents can play it for $50. That's a considerable economy over another public course visited by the U.S. Open. Pebble Beach's green fee is $495, although that includes a cart for resort guests.
The leaderboard this week figures to be populated by millionaires, but in a sense, the Open is the people's tournament. It is open to anyone, rich or poor, professional or amateur, who has a handicap of 1.4 or less. There are 16 amateurs in the field, including David Erdy, a 19-year-old from Boonville, Ind.
Last year, PGA Tour journeyman Rocco Mediate, a 45-year-old barber's son from Greensburg, Pa., had to survive sectional qualifying to make the field. He arrived at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., 158th in the world rankings.
No matter. Tiger Woods needed a 72nd hole birdie to force a Monday playoff and an 18th hole birdie to extend it before beating Mediate on the 91st hole. Woods was figuratively playing on one leg; he had season-ending reconstructive knee surgery one week later.
History, heroes and heartbreak, the U.S. Open always has an abundance of story lines. Here are a few prospects for this week:
Just for openers: Half the field will play the back nine first today. The other half will tee it up at No. 10 on Friday. Welcome aboard, boys. Nos. 10-12 are Bethpage's toughest stretch, par-4s measuring 508, 435 and 524 yards. It's 260 yards to carry the bunker guarding the corner on No. 12. Play short of it and you face an approach shot of about 280.
The favorite: Woods is the best player, a three-time Open champion, a long hitter, and at 7,426 yards, Bethpage is a home run park. Woods won by three shots when the Open was played there in 2002. It was his seventh title in a stretch of 11 major championships and his eighth overall. The count now stands at 14, only four shy of Jack Nicklaus' record. Woods has won consecutive titles at the Masters, British Open and but has failed to defend his two U.S. Open titles. He could become the first to win all four majors back-to-back at some point in his career this week.
The people's choice: Phil Mickelson owns New York. Its rowdy galleries lifted him during U.S. Open runner-up finishes in 2002 at Bethpage, '04 at Shinnecock Hills and '06 at Winged Foot, and while he was winning the '05 PGA Championship at Baltusrol in nearby New Jersey. With Mickelson's wife, Amy, to undergo breast cancer surgery next month, the affection will be even dearer. He's counting on it. "I'm putting everything I have into this week, because I don't anticipate being able to play for a little while," Mickelson told reporters. "And the fact that my normal support system, Amy and the kids and so forth, aren't going to make the trip this week, I'm kind of hoping to have that or feel the support to kind of help me through the week."
The anti-Phil: Sergio Garcia finished fourth at Bethpage in 2002 -- despite the crowd. Annoyed by Garcia's compulsive preshot routine of re-gripping his club, the crowd taunted him and counted the repetitions in Spanish. Garcia answered with an obscene gesture.
Don't forget me: If you're looking for a sleeper, you needn't look far. Playing in the 8:06 a.m. pairing with Woods and British Open champion Padraig Harrington is Angel Cabrera. Cabrera has received little attention this week, but he has the length, the game and the credentials. He ranks seventh in driving distance on the PGA Tour at 301.9 yards and he has won two of the past eight majors, the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont and the Masters in April.
Hoosier's home court: "I'm a New York kind of guy, I guess, from Indiana by way of Oklahoma," reasoned Bo Van Pelt, a Richmond, Ind., native and Tulsa, Okla., resident who shot 65-68 to take one of 17 spots up for grabs among 120 players last week in sectional qualifying at Columbus, Ohio. Van Pelt is playing his third Open. All have been in New York, 2004 at Shinnecock Hills and '06 at Winged Foot. The other Hoosiers in the field are Nationwide Tour member Craig Bowden of Bloomington and Erdy, who will be a sophomore at Indiana University. Fuzzy Zoeller, New Albany, is the only Hoosier to win the Open, at Winged Foot in 1984.
You've come a long way: The first U.S. Open was conducted Oct. 4, 1895, as the undercard to the main event, the U.S. Amateur, played the same week on the same course, nine-hole Newport (R.I.) Golf and Country Club. Ten professionals and a lone amateur played four nines the same day. English pro Horace Rawlins, 21, shot 91-82--173 and pocketed the $150 first prize. Woods earned $1.35 million last year.
Wanna go? Maybe it's the economy, but there are deals to be had. According to fansnap.com, a search engine that filters information from dozens of ticket companies, daily passes, as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, started at $50 for today's opening round, $96 for Friday, $90 for Saturday and $75 for Sunday. Hey, the players paid a $150 entry fee, and more than 8,900 of them failed to qualify.