Time goes by so fast nowadays, doesn't it? It seems like only yesterday that Angel Cabrera, Kenny Perry, and Chad Campbell were battling it out for the green jacket, their 44-inch waists seriously bringing into question golf's validity as a "sport."
But in just a few short days, an opening tee shot just before 8 A.M. will mark the beginning of our national championship.
I'll be providing some analysis and opinions throughout the week, but until then, here are 18 notes about the upcoming week, beginning with the front nine.
1. It's good to see the Open back at Bethpage Black
The 2002 U.S. Open remains one of the most memorable because, finally, the words after the host course's name weren't "country club" or "golf club" or "golf links"— but rather "state park".
Theoretically, you could walk on to Bethpage the day after the Open and play a $2 nassau on the same ground that Tiger, Phil, and Vijay just walked on less than 24 hours before (don't seriously try that, though— it takes a while to bring the course back to playable conditions).
Of course, let's not forget Bethpage Black's infamous all-night camp-outs for tee times, not to mention the fact that you'll probably be hacking it around the course so much that you won't have the sanity to appreciate your surroundings.
But, isn't it nice to see world class players take on a course that you can play too?
2. That being said, Bethpage is a tad overrated
The ultimate test of a golf course, for traditional enthusiasts, is not how high the tournament's winning score goes, or how good Golf Digest's world-caliber-course-playing-bureaucrats think it is (lucky bastards).
Instead, the best judgment of a course is how many holes we can actually remember once the tournament ends.
In other words, think of a course, and see how many holes you can describe with some degree of detail.
Under this ranking system, a few courses quickly come to mind: Augusta, Pebble Beach, Oakmont, TPC at Sawgrass, and even Torrey Pines (fresh in the mind).
At Bethpage Black, the only holes I can describe are the par-three 17th, and the finishing 18th.
OK, so perhaps my ranking system isn't all that scientific, but let's see if Bethpage can pass my character test this time around.
3. Previewing the USGA's inevitable so-corny-they-make-you-cry pairings
In case you weren't aware, the USGA doesn't make first and second round U.S. Open pairings through a random process. In fact, USGA doesn't even make pairings through a logical process.
Instead, the USGA finds a group of players that share some cutesy personality trait or common plight/accomplishment, and put them all together in one group.
For example: last year's infamous 1-2-3 pairing of Woods, Mickelson, and Adam Scott—which naturally about 90% of the spectators at Torrey Pines were pushing and shoving each other to follow, a brilliant strategy for major events crowd management.
Other times, the common bond is more subtle. Take the pairing a few years back of Kevin Stadler, Chad Campbell, and Jason Gore—three big guys.
Oh, how adorable (sarcasm).
This year, the USGA has really outdone themselves.
In 2009, the common bond will be—same name. Yes friends, the USGA is pairing together players with the same or similar last name, like a bad Wheel of Fortune puzzle.
For example, both Vijay and Jeev Milkha Singh are together. Also together are Andres and Eduardo Romero.
Also together are—wait for it—Soren Hansen and Peter Hanson.
Is someone seriously being paid to do this? Any way I can grab a piece of this lucrative labor market?
4. A few other interesting pairings
Again, remembering that USGA pairings are NOT a random process:
I don't know what sick, demented individual put this group together, but at 1:47 PM on Thursday we've got three aging players who'll forever lay awake at night due to heartbreaking major championship losses:
Rocco Mediate (blew the 2008 US Open),
Kenny Perry (blew the 1996 PGA and 2009 Masters),
Tom Lehman (won the 1996 British, but blew the 1994 Masters and 1997 U.S. Open).
Now, that's just cruel.
And, by the way, here's a little advice: if you're going to Bethpage on Thursday afternoon and are interested in meeting some twenty-something women, then be sure you're on the first tee at 1:25 PM.
Why, you ask? Because that's when the stud-boy group of Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas, and Adam Scott will be teeing off.
Don't expect good results, though.
You'll be competing for time with millionaire professional golfers—who are probably better looking than you, and won't be riding a big yellow school bus back to the parking lot to drive home in a 1994 Ford Taurus. Sorry to kill your hopes, but let's be realistic.
5. Who to Watch This Week
Yes, it's time for prognostication. Here's a few players I'm expecting to go low:
Well, we might as well start by going out on on a limb with Tiger Woods. He's the defending champ, won the last open played at Bethpage, and is fresh off a great win at the Memorial. He's the odds-on favorite by far.
Also, let's give some respect to Angel Cabrera. The two-time major winner pounds the ball a mile and seems to have a knack for getting out of trouble and rising to the occasion on big stages.
Another guy to watch is European PGA Champion Paul Casey. He's been solid this season and has a pretty decent record in majors.
Let's not forget about the frustrated Sergio Garcia, either. Remember, it was Sergio who played in Sunday's final pairing with Tiger Woods at Bethpage in 2002. Last year, after winning the Players, but losing by a hair at the PGA, Sergio is primed for a breakthrough victory.
And, as a little upset pick, if Robert Allenby can get his putter working, he'll be a force to be reckoned with. Allenby is solid in every conceivable stat except putting.
6. Keys to Victory
Bethpage is a brutally harsh course. I'd expect the gnarly rough of 2002 to be thinned out a bit, but besides that, the course will give the players just as miserable a time.
Distance is crucial. Look down the list of PGA Tour driving average leaders and eliminate the bottom 60% from contention this week. Short hitters may hang around for a while, but they won't be able to close the deal.
Experience will be another key factor. Using imagination and local knowledge is an important skill for conquering a course full of twists, turns, hills, and waste areas abound.
Someone who's been in contention before and knows how to capitalize on their previous success, or learn from their previous mistakes, will be the winner.
Finally, the raucous New York crowd will probably become a hazard in their own right, so it'll take a player who can capture the gallery's energy and become a fan favorite to survive the week.
7. So, who wins? And what will be the winning score?
There's only one semi-confident answer that any person of reasonable sanity can give: Tiger Woods, as everything seems to be aligned for his 15th major.
If I had to pick the winning foursome, I'd go with: Woods (-1), Casey (+2), Garcia (+3), and Allenby (+4).
There's a 99% chance that I'll be completely wrong, it is the strange and cruel game of golf after all, but that's what my gut says for the moment.
8. Going to the Open
I'll be fortunate enough to attend two practice rounds of the U.S. Open this week. I always enjoy practice rounds more than competitive rounds since the players are looser and more friendly, tickets are cheaper, the crowds are a tad smaller, pictures are allowed, and most importantly, I can go autograph hounding.
A few years ago I used to scoff at the idiots who would line up and wait for hours to get a little scribble from a player.
Then, during a 2006 Winged Foot practice round, I found myself running a wind sprint from the clubhouse, trespassing through a catering area, and almost tackling Ernie Els' caddy to get his signature on my 2006 U.S. Open embroidered flag.
I have my usual rituals: for the flag to be any good, it must achieve the "autograph grand slam" by having winners of each of the four majors on the four corners of the flag (thank god for fluke winners like Ben Curtis and Michael Campbell).
I try to get Masters winners, and only Masters winners, to sign with a green pen. Green Jacket=Green Pen. Get it?
You know what, after writing this paragraph, I think I may have autograph OCD.
Anyway, another great thing about going to the Open is that you get to see how elevated and tricky the course is. You can't see 75% of a golf course's texture by watching on TV. Winged Foot's 18th green looked like something plucked midway from a mogul run in-person, yet it looked like just another bumpy hole at Jimbo's Mini-Putt on TV.
If you're in the New York area, it's worth a gander on one of those internet auction sites (no free ads in my articles) where you can probably get tickets for just a bit above face value.
9. Watching the Open on TV
Ah yes, if you thought that Golf Channel's coverage of tournament golf was awful, get ready to vomit when you see what ESPN does to ruin a major championship.
First off, get the mute button ready. NBC's personalities don't carry over to ESPN's coverage, so you won't be hearing intelligent commentary from Gary Koch and Bob Murphy, or the overly caustic Johnny Miller getting the obligatory chip off his shoulder ("I was ranked higher than Jack Nicklaus for a while!" That's great, Johnny, but we really don't care. It's not 1971.)
Instead, get ready to hear the babbling Chris Berman spurt out whatever incoherent thoughts come to his mind.
Prepare for Curtis Strange's I-wanna-be-Johnny-Miller shtick where he forces biting criticism for every shot except a hole-out.
And, of course, Judy Rankin will provide her usual blatantly obvious on-course reporting to further insult your intelligence ("That ball went off the back of the green, Chris". Thanks, Judy. I wondered what was happening when that little white circle rolled off the big bright green circle. Golf looks like fun!).
ESPN really knows how to ruin every sport it touches. And golf is no exception.
From the previously mentioned bad talent, to the irritating constantly-scrolling leaderboard which randomly switches to stats that no one cares about, to the endless promos for World Series of Poker and World's Strongest Man, ESPN is by far the worst network to cover golf. (Please, R&A, no ESPN/ABC. Give the British Open rights to NBC or CBS, or even QVC if you need to.)
On the brighter side, NBC has every hour of weekend coverage. I'll trade Chris Berman for Johnny Miller in a second.