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Bethpage last week in lesser hands could have been a comedy of errors. Instead it was more like slapstick. Every time you looked up, either a dark cloud was moving in or raindrops were falling on your face. Last Saturday, Al Roker, the Today show weatherman, got more screentime than Phil Mickelson, the adopted New Yorker.
When the USGA first held a U.S. Open at Bethpage—in 2002, nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks—Tiger and Phil had a lively battle and the People's Open was a joyous escape. This year, on the people's side of the ropes, the party felt desperate at times. On Thursday grown men were taking running starts and sliding headfirst into the mud. On Saturday grown men were chanting for "Fred F---." You know, a "clever" bastardization of Fred Funk, the 53-year-old golfer who talks to fans while waiting on tees, who treats reporters like human beings, who always has his family in the gallery. Early on Sunday, with the taps opened on a dreary first day of summer and with the Mets' bullpen struggling, grown men were downing cold ones two at a time.
Sure, New York sports fans are among the most knowledgeable and spirited in the world, but golf at Bethpage is not the football Giants at the Meadowlands. Five percent (rough estimate) of the Bethpage crowd might have benefited from one more year at finishing school. Might the USGA have done more to control the crowd? Not easily.
You could throw people out for abusive language, but where would you actually put them? The parking lots, accessible only by shuttle bus, were miles away, and the roads there were closed to pedestrian traffic. Things were easier back when Old Tom Morris was the czar of the Old Course.
Of course that's part of modern golf's problem, the lack of a czar. There is no Old Tom, no Charles Blair Macdonald (an early, autocratic president of the USGA), no Clifford Roberts (the strong-willed cofounder of Augusta National). There's no trusted tyrant. The game is too democratic—lowercase d, it goes without saying—for its own good.
You may think of the USGA as an excuse for a cocktail party for a bunch of old prepsters, but it's not. What it is is a bewildering blend of veteran professionals (executive director David Fay, competitions director Mike Davis, technical director Dick Rugge) reporting to an ever-changing board of volunteer lay people. It's amazing that decisions get made at all.
Last week, surrounded by soggy grass and sleep-deprived golfers and overserved spectators, the USGA white shirts got so much right it inspires nothing but confidence. A mess was averted. Somehow, out of the mud and despite the sputtering schedule, they produced an odd and interesting championship on an impossibly difficult and lush public course featuring the best players in the world.
Which leaves us with a question for the USGA: Can you turn to us next?
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