In the gallery: Crowds, comments and, briefly, Shangri-La
Posted June 13, 2014
Pinehurst, N.C. — As I began my trek around Pinehurst No. 2, I could see this is not like 2005 and definitely not like 1999.
There are more fans, more ropes, more confinement and more golf carts. You can move around and watch golf, but will quickly find that certain hole clusters – Nos. 5,6 and 7 for example – really tend to herd spectators together in large groups for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
I like to spread out!
That becomes more difficult with the constant flow of network golf carts. ESPN,NBC, Sky and next year’s rightsholder Fox all are shuttling equipment and personnel about the course. Many times I had to settle for an uncomfortable side-hill stance. Most of the people on carts were quite considerate of pedestrians, but I did see one woman on a Sky HD cart who was taking no prisoners!
Lefty left 'the claw' at home
Phil Mickelson walked out on the range to warm up right as I arrived. He took out a wedge and two alignment stakes for his loosening up drills. You’ve got to be lined up properly on this course!
Mickelson began with a couple of birdies, but by the time I caught up with him, the air had begun to seep out of the balloon.
As he putted for par on the eighth hole, I noticed the "claw grip" he experimented with yesterday had been replaced by his conventional stroke. He three-putted No. 8 for bogey. He would then scramble for par on nine as I rushed over to No. 10 fairway for a good view of what I was sure would be a bomb of a drive.
A turn South at No. 10
To see the putting on number eight, I had to crane my neck. But now at No. 10 fairway, like Bob Uecker, I must be on the front row! I got a great view of Mickelson wielding a menacing left-handed drive that blows by his playing partners Matthew Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose by 60 yards. Unfortunately for Lefty, his attempt to hit this 600-yard par five in two winds up near a tree 80 yards from the flag.
The crowd doesn’t know how to react.
“Does he have a swing?” Another fan talks about the importance of at least saving par here. Still another hollers out at the top of his voice “Yeah Lefty!” What is this, Phoenix? Have another beer buddy. Mickelson’s in trouble. Wrong time for that cheer.
Phil punches onto the green, but his long putt goes well right and a little past the hole. I hear a spectator say, “What was that?” Another says, “Where was he going with that putt?” As he looks over the par putt coming back, a third spectator says, “This is really big.”
It is. Especially when he misses. Mickelson is suddenly back to one over par, and you can feel the deflation in the crowd.
Some spectators decide it’s time to move on. “He’s made three bogeys, and we’ve seen them all. No sense following Phil anymore,” they think.
What about Kaymer
Lots of folks followed Martin Kaymer’s second consecutive amazing round Friday morning. I picked him up on the par-five fifth hole. Kaymer hit his tee shot long and down the left side of the fairway. He spent the entire length of the walk to his ball engaged in conversation with Keegan Bradley and his caddie. This is textbook stuff here. While so many golfers are fretting about errant shots and the conditions, possibly over-thinking at times, Kaymer looks like he’s taking an enjoyable walk in the park. Of course, when you’re hitting the ball like he has for the past two days, it does make it easier to put golf aside in between shots!
A couple of good beach trips
Kaymer made a two-putt birdie on No. 5 to go to 10-under for the tournament. Of course, the USGA watered greens Thursday, and almost ¾ of an inch of rain fell last night, so he has played on more receptive greens than we saw in 1999 and 2005. Still, very few players were even under par after two rounds in those tournaments.
Kaymer was so far ahead he decided to swing by the beach for a little R and R! He found the bunker on the sixth hole. No problem, calmly swatting his sand shot to four feet of the flag stick. He would save par without even asking for a cool one.
Kaymer enjoyed the sand at six so much he decided to book another beach visit on this hot day at seven. This shot rolled even closer. “That’s a gimme,” the guy behind me said.
Big house like Wrigley Field
Spectators are not allowed to take pictures during U.S. Open play, and in fact neither are local television media. But there is a huge house overlooking the seventh fairway that apparently falls outside the purview of the USGA.
Like the rooftop grandstands outside Wrigley Field, the photographer deck on the big house on No. 7 represents folks on private property following their own rules. I know I saw one photographer with a huge telephoto lens snapping away. I might have even seen a video camera. The house, by the way, was built for the 2005 Open, by a man who is a huge New York Yankee fan. The guy made millions flipping houses before the real estate bubble burst.
Congestion at 8 and 9
You had to really want to see Kaymer at the eighth and ninth holes. Congestion was considerable. I did find a magnolia tree where two young kids climbed high and found a good view of Kaymer’s two putt par.
A very nice lady asked me if she could sit on my shoulders. I considered the request, but told her with my lack of upper body strength I’d probably shrink from 6’3 to 5’3, and then she still couldn’t see. She thanked me for at least thinking about it. Kaymer on the other hand is so strong, I think he could have carried her around the golf course.
Spectators were a bit frustrated with the congestion, because these knowledgeable golf fans know they may never see another round like Kaymer put together Thursday and Friday. His par putt at nine drew a nice round of applause. Not the loud ovation one might hear from the huge grandstand on the 18th hole, but a nice recognition from well-educated Pinehurst golf fans who made the effort to walk to the extreme edge of the golf course. The ninth hole at No. 2 is about as far from the clubhouse as any hole on the property. Except maybe for the tenth hole.
Keegan Bradley’s sneak-up routine
Spectators paid close attention to Kaymer’s playing partner Keegan Bradley. One young lady at the fifth hole hollered “Hey Keegan” at her hero as he walked by. “He nodded back at me,” she exclaimed. Made her whole day.
But some of the attention Bradley gains on the golf course comes from his unique pre-swing routine. As he surveys his shot, he will spin the club a bit and start rocking back and forth. Then all at once he approaches his golf ball as if sneaking up on it. And then he wants to hit it quickly. Maybe before the ball knows what’s happening?
One frustrated fan said, “Just hit the bloody ball!”
When Bradley hit a low-running slice out of a terrible lie in one of the natural areas on No. 8, another fan said, “That’s the worst shot I’ve ever seen a professional golfer hit.”
Bradley got the last laugh though, when he hit a great recovery shot and made the ensuing putt for par, and then birdied the ninth hole. For that, Bradley even took a little of Kaymer’s applause!
Sipping and wagering
I found some of the day’s more entertaining fans at the tenth hole, sipping beer and wagering green.
One took 10-to-1 odds on a Matt Kuchar putt for birdie. The putt missed. I saw money changing hands.
These guys had even more interest in the next group. When Rory McIlroy hit a great-looking shot from a fairway bunker to the back of the green, the fan whose money was on Rory let out a yell. But McIlroy’s ball would not stay on the green. It rolled off, prompting one of the group in front of me to exclaim, “That never would have happened if you hadn’t broken up with Caroline!” Ouch!
McIlroy then tried to chip up, but it came back to him. “Left it there,” the fan yelled. McIlroy eventually bogied the hole, although he did play solidly thereafter.
McIlroy’s partner, Graeme McDowell rolled his putt in for a birdie on ten. More money changed hands.
Simpson struggles early
Webb Simpson, playing with this group of former U.S. Open champions, made par on the tenth, but ran into trouble on the eleventh.
“He’s walking toward the bunker,” one fan noted.
And then Simpson found another bunker with his second shot. He blasted out just south of the eleventh green.
As he was waiting for his turn to putt, the player seemed to be having an animated discussion with his caddy, Paul Tesori. Webb wound up doing some good damage control, posting a 72 for the day to go along with his first-round 71. There were many, many rounds that were worse.
With Kaymer playing dominant golf and Mickelson struggling, galleries grew more and more quiet. I took off for some new territory. I was quite surprised to reach the 11th green and see almost no spectators. OK! I can really see now!
Then I realized: the lead groups have already come through here. No wonder the place was empty. I hurried over to No. 13 to see Brendon Todd. I did notice as I was crossing the 12th fairway that there are lots of really interesting native plants in the natural areas. It’s not just wire grass!
Big day for Brendon
I found Todd surveying his second shot at 13 from well up on the left side of the fairway.
To his credit, he completely blocked out a distant ovation that erupted on 12 when Jordan Spieth rolled in a putt for birdie.
Todd never lost concentration, and put up a nice-looking approach shot to this uphill green. “Go! Go!” Todd beckoned. The golf ball obeyed, rolling to a stop hole high, about four feet away.
Todd, of course, is claimed by folks in the Triangle, since he played at Green Hope High School. He is also claimed by fans of the Georgia Bulldogs, and several were wearing red shirts and doing a little “dog barking” as he walked by.
Todd made his putt to a large roar from the crowd at 13. He went on to shoot a terrific 67, leaving him four under par, all alone in second place.
Waiting for Kevin Na
The other player who made a small charge at Kaymer was Kevin Na, a Korean-American who now lives in Las Vegas. I found Shangri-La, waiting for Kevin Na.
I hate to give out my secret, but there is a nice elm tree right below the 14th hole, where for some reason, few spectators congregate. There is shade, space and a clear view of the hole. The breeze even picked up for a bit.
Na’s group lagged at least a hole behind, and I waited a very long time. Two knowledgeable golf fans helped me pass the long minutes. One had binoculars and could actually see Na on the 13th hole, 500 yards away, lining up his par putt. Na was four under par at the time, but when he putted, we couldn’t hear any noise from the galleries at 13. That meant bogey.
A second fan had one of those ESPN radios. He decided to “lend me his ears” for a few minutes. The announcers confirmed that Na had in fact fallen to three under par.
Na’s score did not improve when he finally he arrived at 14. He two putted for par to remain at three under, and there he would stay for the rest of the day. Two guys smoking cigars came along, and so it was time to leave Shangri-La.
Broken club, broken records
On the 15th hole, I saw a caddie toss the head of a broken three wood to an eager fan. Apparently Kevin Kizner’s equipment had come apart during a swing. And maybe that’s something of a metaphor for Kaymer’s first two rounds at Pinehurst, for he has surely shattered all two-day records for a U.S. Open here. But maybe this weekend, the golf course will fight back.