Geoff Ogilvy took his first Major ? but only after Monty and Lefty had imploded in spectacular fashion. Bill Elliott reports on a memorable US Open
So that was the United States Open then. Was it, as some think, a car crash disguised as a golf competition, a weirdly dishevelled walk in a wilderness, or was it the best Major of recent times?
As ever, it depends on where you are coming from. Or, indeed, going to.
In Colin Montgomerie?s and Phil Mickelson?s cases this turned out to be a trip to a kind of nowhere ? if finishing joint runners-up in the year?s second proper event may ever be described as ?nowhere?.
For Geoff Ogilvy, however, this barbed-wire Winged Foot test turned out to provide the surprise high point of a career that now threatens to transmogrify into a thing of real and lasting substance.
The case for the prosecution of the United States Golf Association and the way these pleasant but slightly psychotic men set up Winged Foot may be summed up thus: Gentlemen, you are charged with presenting a golf course that carried all the attraction of an incoherent minefield. Furthermore, you reduced the world?s finest golfers to gibbering wrecks. And, finally, Mr Tiger Woods missed his first cut in a Major since doing us all the great service of turning professional a decade ago.
The case for the defence, meanwhile, is along these lines: Hey guys, chill out again, you should have mucho praise heaped upon your elegant shoulders for daring to properly examine these chaps. The course you prepared in the environs of New York City reflected much that is great about this wonderful city inasmuch as it was sensational to look at, offered magnificent entertainment but always carried an exciting suggestion of real danger. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is your decision.
Well, from behind my sofa, I wish to discharge the USGA mob. Indeed I would like to compliment them on offering me, and I suspect many others, the most absorbing championship to grace the golf scene so far in this crazed 21st century.
An American sportswriter pal of mine, the admirable Art Spander, who brings a real appreciation of fine wine to the San Francisco scene, thinks otherwise. Art has written that this US Open was a bit of a shambles because what the punters really want to witness is an overwhelming flurry of birdies and eagles. Today?s spectator/TV viewer, he says, does not have the attention span necessary to enjoy anything else.
Of course he has a point. It is, however, a very small one. Winning a Major with a five-over-par score as Ogilvy did may fly in the complacent face of almost everything else that goes on in this gimme-it-now society but the really good thing is that many of us are happy that this should be so.
The whack-it-find-it-whack-it-again golf that makes up so much of the modern game might have drawn in a new and younger audience who have yet to absorb the life-lesson that there is indeed a need for occasional subtlety but for those of us who prefer a test match to a one-day slog there was much to enjoy at this particular US Open. It was also pleasing that this sternest of examination papers encouraged a more positive reaction from European golfers than we have had to endure for a few years.
No one, of course, did better in this regard than Colin Stuart Montgomerie. Until Winged Foot, Monty had been a somewhat shambolic, certainly ragged, figure. The old panache that he rediscovered in 2005 once more had deserted him. He was unpredictable off
tee and on green. He was, many of us felt, showing the signs of wear and tear that comes after 20 years of high-level competition at the sharpest of ends.
The best and worst
Well, in the USA in June, we saw the old and familiar best of Monty. And then we witnessed a new and frightening worst.
For 71 holes he unarguably played this demanding track better than anyone else.
He was considered and patient, at times he was even edging his way towards affable with an American golf crowd that clearly has grown bored with baiting the great man.
And then he came to the last. He knew, or certainly seriously suspected, that a par 4 here would either win this Major or put him in a play-off. To avoid this happening the man behind him, Mickelson, would have to play his last three holes better than anyone could ever seriously hope to do.
?For Geoff Ogilvy, however, this barbed-wire Winged Foot test turned out to provide the surprise high point of his career?
Monty?s drive off the final tee was a thing of control and genuine beauty, real grace under exquisite pressure. The fact is he did the hardest thing perfectly but the other fact is that he then executed the easiest task worse than ever before in his pro life.
Show me Montgomerie with a 7-iron in his hand, a ball in a perfect fairway lie and a hole that requires a high, sliding fade and I will show you a birdie in the making. This is the way it has been throughout his career. I would have bet my house on him getting down in three shots at most from the position he worked so hard for himself to enjoy at Winged Foot. And I would now, as you know, be homeless.
As he hit the ball slightly fat ? always a sign of a man working under too much pressure ? and watched its inevitable flight towards the worst of the clag to the right of the green, his mouth dropped open in horror. ?What,? he said to himself and, as it happens, a watching world, ?kind of shot is that?? The answer, sadly, is his worst kind of nightmare.
Twenty years ago Seve Ballesteros made a hacker?s hash of a simple enough 4-iron to the 15th green at Augusta.
If Seve had made that shot then he,
not Jack Nicklaus, would have won the Masters that year. Instead he caught
it fat, his ball smacked into the water,
and the beginning of the end of a fabulous career began within a millisecond. A
week later I sat with the Spaniard in Madrid while he talked about what had happened and for the first time I saw fear in those burning eyes.
The doubt factor
?It is a problem for me now,? he said quietly. ?A big problem. You see, I do not know why I hit that shot. The sky was blue and I felt okay but still I hit it and now I must wonder when I am going to hit this terrible shot again and how much it will damage me when it happens.?
It is now the same with Montgomerie. Ballesteros, of course, went on to win one more Major ? the 1988 Open at St Annes ? but he was never quite the same domineering force ever again. Golf simply does not allow the accommodation of the winged demon called Doubt. And never will.
Instead of finally winning his Major, Montgomerie probably has just missed
his last chance. He says his performance proves that he can still win one. I sincerely hope he is correct but I suspect that he has just proved that he can do what we already knew he could, namely finish second. Only this time instead of another competitor kicking him aside he has shown he is capable of shooting himself in both feet.
This is a pity. Just as Mickelson?s idiotic attempt to go for broke after carving his drive at the last was just that? idiotic, a flashback to the bad old days for this apparently reformed adrenaline junkie.
For each of these men a carefully executed humdrum shot would have brought glory.
Still it was brilliant to witness. Whatever else was shredded at this US Open, the complacency so openly exhibited by many of today?s top players was shown the door early. It will be back of course, but not for a while. Winged Foot asked a big question ? that no one came up with a big answer remains forever a very good thing indeed.