Five weeks ago at the legendary Merion Golf Club, golfer Phil Mickelson led the U.S. Open after three rounds. Mickelson had won four previous major tournaments in his career, but had five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open without a win. At 1-under after 54 holes, Mickelson was the only player under par. Unfortunately for Lefty, he didn’t stay there, shooting 4-over on Sunday as Justin Rose shot even-par to finish 1-over and win by two strokes. Mickelson was heartbroken at having come so close once again, only to lose on the final holes. As a fan favorite, it seemed like golf fans everywhere felt his pain, wondering if he’d ever break through at the U.S. Open.
Yesterday, Mickelson began the final round of the Open Championship at Muirfield tied for ninth, five strokes back at 2-over par. He played the round of his life, shooting a 66 to finish 3-under and win by three strokes.
He was the only player under par.
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Despite what you just read, this post isn’t really about Phil Mickelson. Five weeks ago, I promised a long post about my weekend. I never wrote it, simply because I was too tired for a couple days, and then after the fact, I didn’t really know what to write. In light of Mickelson’s win, however, I decided to just go and do it anyway.
Every year, the U.S. Open is traditionally the toughest golf tournament in the world. As one of golf’s four major championships, it’s kind of a big deal. Merion Golf Club, located just outside of Philadelphia, has a long and storied history in the game of golf, but hadn’t hosted an Open since 1981. The tournament has moved to bigger courses, both in playing length, and spectator space. Merion allowed roughly half the number of spectators that the Olympic Club had in 2012. Despite that, the USGA brought its premier event back to Merion in a nod to the course’s tradition and history.
Merion Golf Club is also a 15-minute drive from where I live. And on that final Sunday of the U.S. Open, I was one of those spectators.
With the exception of the time I spent in Washington during college, I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life. Philadelphia has always had something of an inferiority complex, both athletically and in the context of where it stands in the hierarchy of America’s cities. Just a couple hours south of the nation’s financial capital and a few hours north of its actual capital, Philadelphia has been relegated to second-class consideration, despite being the cradle of a fledgling nation in the 1770s.
All of that is to say that when the USGA announced that the Open would come back to Merion, it was a big deal. A really big deal. I took up golf when I was in high school, and since then, I’ve improved greatly (despite being a terrible golfer, I’m much better than I was). I never really watched much golf, but after I started playing, I started watching, because sometimes I find it hard to believe that what I’m doing is technically the same thing that the guys on television are doing.
Along the same lines, Merion’s East Course opened in 1912 and was designed by Hugh Wilson. Wilson also designed The Olde Course at Cobbs Creek Golf Club, which is where I play an overwhelming majority of my golf (it’s a public course and trust me, it’s not as high-falutin’ as it may sound). Just four miles from Merion, the creek that the broadcasters were talking about during the Open is the same creek that runs through my home course. Some of the design elements were very similar as well, so I like to think that I essentially play Merion pretty much every other weekend.
Last June, one of my coworkers, a USGA member, forwarded those of us in the office an email about purchasing tickets for this year’s tournament. I bought a pair of grounds passes for the last practice day, as did others in the office. I also sent out texts to a few of my golfing buddies asking if they wanted to get tickets for one of the championship days, and they all replied with emphatic and near-immediate yeses. The prices escalated as the weekend went on; Thursday tickets were $40, and tickets for Sunday were $125. My follow-up message asked what day everyone wanted to attend; I knew it would be expensive, but I hoped they would want to shell out the extra money and go on Sunday.
Within five minutes, I had my answers, and within 10 minutes, I had placed my order. Three hundred and sixty eight days later, we would be in attendance at the historic Merion Golf Club for the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open.
I was legitimately stoked in the weeks leading up to the tournament, and in the end, it didn’t disappoint. It turned out to be possibly the second-best sporting event I’ve ever seen live (sometime later in the year I will write about the first). It was such a great experience, and I had so much to talk about when I got home, but there was no real cohesion to it (hence my initial difficulty in writing about it), so I’ll just share some anecdotes.
• I knew Merion was close, but I didn’t know how close, so a week before the tournament, I decided to drive by the course. The East Course lies on two sides of a road that, while I wouldn’t call it a major thoroughfare, is still a reasonably well-traveled avenue. I did a little Google Mapping, and after work, I drove over. The course is literally two traffic lights up the road from where I bowl every week. I had no idea.
• I went to the practice session on Wednesday after spending the morning at work. I had a good time with the people I went with, but we didn’t see a ton of golf. I ran into a few people I know, though, which, if you think about the limited number of tickets available (25,000 per day), is either surprising or not. I really don’t know.
• Come Sunday morning, we hopped on the train (there was a stop right near the course, and considering how rain earlier in the week had essentially washed out one of the off-site lots, it could not possibly have been more convenient) and arrived at the course around 8:45. We were a group of four, and we started walking around some of the holes, looking for a place to camp for a while. We soon reached a dead end. This was the end of my period as group navigator.
• This seems as good a time as any to mention that because some of my friends and I cannot say no to the idea of prediction contests and pick ’ems, of course we set up a pick ’em for the U.S. Open. I had Justin Rose on my team, and thanks to the collapses of everyone on someone else’s squad, I won. We ended up doing one for last week’s Open Championship as well, where my four competitors (including Rose) all missed the cut. Of course.
• We started making our way towards the third green. It had a grandstand, and is a par-3, so we figured we would see all sorts of golfing – tee shots, bunker shots, chips, long putts, short putts, everything. On the way, we saw a group tee off on the second hole that featured English golfer Simon Khan. You always hear people yelling stuff when guys tee off, and I kind of halfheartedly wanted to come up with something funny that people might hear on television. I had recently seen the new Star Trek movie, so when I saw Khan’s name, I suggested we pull a William Shatner and yell “KHAAAAAAAAN!!” after he teed off. Everyone laughed, agreeing it was a good idea. Khan stepped to the tee, wound up, and hit his ball.
Nothing. We clammed up. Well, I clammed up, since there still weren’t very many spectators there on the second tee at that time of the morning, and I figured I would have looked and felt stupid. As for the other guys in my group, I don’t think they would have done it anyway. In the end, we kept saying “KHAAAAAAAN!!” throughout the day, generally in response to a poor shot. You know, because we’re so good ourselves.
• The third hole ended up being a bit controversial because of the way it was set up. Despite being a par-3, it was playing close to 250 yards, which means players had to take woods instead of irons to reach the green. That meant a reduction in loft, which meant that balls came in low and fast, often skipping through the green. Some of the shorter-hitting players came up short, leaving tough, lengthy lag putts to get close to the hole for an attempt at par. We saw what we expected: a couple birdies, some pars, some bogeys, and all sorts of shots ranging from poor to surprisingly good, considering that the first handful of guys to go through were 20 strokes over par through 56 holes.
• One guy, Shawn Stefani, hit his tee shot just to the left of the green. As he lined up his chip shot, he stumbled backwards into a bunker. He didn’t flat-out fall, but his stumble certainly elicited a chuckle from the grandstand.
(We’re not done with Stefani. Remember that name.)
• As noon was approaching, we decided to take a shot at getting seats in the 17th grandstand or near the 18th green. We made our way towards 18, which was right next to the first tee. As we crossed the first fairway, someone pointed out that Tiger Woods would be teeing off three groups later. We weren’t going to follow Tiger like a lot of people were, but at this point, there wasn’t an unmanageable crowd near the tee. Say what you want about him and his demeanor and off-the-course life choices, but he is arguably the greatest to ever play the game. Yes, I wanted to see him up close. We found a good spot and were able to see the world’s top-ranked player tee off at the U.S. Open. We later saw him tee off on the 14th hole and finish his round on 18. Whether you like him or not, it’s pretty cool to be 15 feet away from Tiger freaking Woods. As someone who cares way too much about sports, I cannot explain how insanely insane that is to me. Here I am five weeks later and I’m still like, dude, Tiger Woods.
• We spent the next seven and a half hours sitting in our camping chairs about five feet from the rope around the 18th green. Seriously, when we went over, there was a row of people along the rope and no one behind them. We were willing to camp, so we got to sit there. Just incredible. Plus, the players walked right behind us after teeing off on 14, so we could simply stand up and turn around to watch them go by. On top of all that, from our seats, you could see the players hitting off of the first tee as well. Well, you could see their clubs at the top of their swing, but still. All told, we saw every group. Some groups (KHAAAAAAAAANNNN!) we saw many, many times.
• I visited the merchandise tent on Wednesday, and ate something of a big breakfast, so I wasn’t really hungry when we hunkered down. The rest of the group was, and wanted to take a look at the merchandise, so I stayed put and watched guys finish out their rounds while the rest of the group made its way up the 18th fairway and behind the 17th grandstand to visit the souvenir and concession tents. When they came back, they told me they were walking by the grandstand when they heard a huge roar. I was 700 yards away, but didn’t hear anything, so I asked what happened.
In 18 USGA championships at Merion, no one had ever carded a hole-in-one. That changed early that afternoon, and the roar they heard was the crowd reacting to the ball going into the hole. They rushed over just in time to see someone reaching into the cup to pull out a ball.
That player? Shawn Stefani. Less than four hours earlier, he was the guy slipped and fell into a bunker. Now, he’s the only player to ever get a hole-in-one in a USGA championship at Merion. Since it happened, people who knew I attended the tournament asked if I saw the guy get the hole-in-one. I tell them no, but I did see him fall down. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
• The biggest shock of the day? Four guys in their 20s went 12 hours without a cell phone (they were not allowed on the grounds). Once I got back to my car and turned it back on, I checked out Twitter and saw a lot of people using the hashtag “#MagnaCartaHolyGrail.” It turned out to be a new album from Jay Z, but at the time, I thought that it might have been what Kim Kardashian and Kanye West named their baby. Worst of all, my reaction was simply, “eh, sounds about right.” 2013, everybody.
• A number of players tossed golf balls or gloves into the crowd. One caddie gave away his hat. I can’t remember every guy who did, nor the guys who didn’t, but I will shout out Bubba Watson. He finished his round and didn’t toss anything to anyone; he just stood by the side of the green for a minute while his playing partner finished and his caddie got his bag situated. But then Bubba walked over to the grandstand, and we saw he had a marker and a half dozen balls. He signed each one and threw it to the crowd (one of my buddies almost got one). Good on you, Bubba.
• Many of the spectators near us had earpieces that carried the audio broadcast of the tournament, so we were able to keep up with what the leaders were doing while we watched the middle of the pack finish up. The giant leaderboard helped too. As the round went on, Rose stayed around 1-over, while Mickelson struggled early. He eagled the 10th hole to take the lead back, but his now-trademark falter unfolded over the back nine, and we knew it was pretty much going to be Justin Rose’s tournament to lose. As he was on my fantasy team, this was fine by me. Rose had also won a PGA event at nearby Aronimink Golf Club three years ago, so I thought it would be cool if he won for a second time in the Philadelphia area. A new adopted son, if you will, even though he’s English.
The 18th green at Merion Golf Club’s East Course. This photo was taken during a U.S. Open practice round. I spent a majority of the final round sitting 20 feet to the left of where this photo was taken.
• Rose was in the third-to-last group, but he held a one-shot lead that, with the way Mickelson was playing, seemed insurmountable at the time. His approach shot on the par-4 18th went just through the green and into the rough. He responded by chipping out with his 3-wood, putting the ball within a foot of the cup. No one birdied the hole all day; Rose came closest.
(I tried chipping with a 3-wood recently. I was in the rough, but a shot with any arc would have hit the tree I was standing under, so I got creative. I smoked the ball through the green, because of course.)
• Incidentally, Rose made birdies on the 17th and 18th holes to come from behind in his singles match at the 2012 Ryder Cup as Europe stormed back to retain the cup. His opponent in that match? Phil Mickelson. Oof.
• After tapping in for his par, Rose looked up and blew a kiss to the sky, thinking of his late father. The final round of the U.S. Open takes place on Father’s Day, and stories of golfers and their fathers and/or children are peppered throughout the broadcast every year. If you didn’t know his story, you might have thought that Rose was jumping the gun a little bit, but in reality, as we stood up to applaud, we knew we were cheering for the champion.
Apropos of nothing, in the following days, I found a photo of Rose looking to the sky, and based on the colors of the faceless blurs in the background, deduced that I am in the photo.
• Mickelson arrived on 18 needing a birdie to tie Rose and force a playoff. To say that the crowd was behind him would be an understatement. His second shot ended up 30 yards short of the green, but in today’s game, if there is anyone on the PGA Tour who can hole that shot, it’s Phil Mickelson. He took his swing and ran after it, almost beating the ball to the green. It rolled well past the hole, and Mickelson eventually made bogey to finish in a tie for second, two strokes behind, but you would never know it from how the crowd reacted. Everyone there, even those of us who had a vested interest in Rose, were rooting for Phil when the day started. We all shared his pain when he missed out, earning his sixth silver medal. When Jason Day accepted second place honors during the post-round ceremony, but Mickelson didn’t, not a single soul in attendance could blame him.
Oh, and did I mention it was his birthday? It was his birthday. Double oof.
• I had never attended a golf tournament before, and sitting by the 18th green for the final round of the U.S. Open might ruin any further tournaments for me, but part of what I was looking forward to was seeing a sporting event where I was essentially rooting for everyone. When you go to a baseball or basketball game, you cheer for your favorite team and you wish ill upon the opponent. But in a golf tournament, while you have your favorites, you’re just applauding all the players for their effort, and cheering wildly for incredible shots. I had hoped that the winner would be in the last group, giving us that moment where the champion sinks his final putt and raises his arms in the air as the crowd stands and showers him with applause. We didn’t get that, but as Rose was finishing, the sense that we were watching the soon-to-be champion have his special moment wasn’t lost on me, and served a similar purpose.
• Having won two of the three professional golf tournaments held near Philadelphia in the last four seasons, Rose made sure to point out how great the galleries were, and how good Philadelphia had been to him. He knows how to work the Philly crowd, that’s for sure. And despite the crowd’s affinity for Mickelson, it was nice that they were familiar with Rose and supported him as a guy who had won here before.
And, if I’m being honest, I deserve at least partial credit for the win. My coworker had volunteered at the AT&T National at Aronimink back in 2010, the year Rose won. He had extra lanyards from the tournament, and I ended up with one. One of my buddies brought a few credential holders for us to put our tickets in so they were protected around our necks. I brought the AT&T National lanyard, slapped it on the plastic sleeve, and put my pass in it. Eleven hours later, the winner of that tournament won this tournament, and won me my fantasy pick ’em.
Coincidence? Almost assuredly. But still.
• In the end, Justin Rose won his first major with a cumulative score of 1-over for four rounds. He was a more-than-deserving champion, having played steadily all weekend long. And that’s what you have to do at the U.S. Open: stay out of trouble, keep the ball on the fairway, and make your putts. I also thought his score was a good sign; usually the Open champ comes in around even par or higher, but because of the lack of length on the course and drenching rains that came through the area three times in the week leading up to the tournament (and on Thursday), some pundits thought some guys might get to double-digits under par, writing the epitaph for Merion as a U.S. Open-quality facility.
That’s not the case anymore. With the 100th anniversary of Bobby Jones locking up the “grand slam” at Merion coming in 2030, what better place to have the U.S. Open than Merion? Sure, there were fewer fans, and there is less space for corporate tents, but this year’s tournament proved to be both an incredible test of golf for the best players in the world, and worth the logistical issues faced by the USGA and the surrounding communities.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend for the Philadelphia area, and an amazing day for me and my friends. If you’ve read even a random smattering of my posts, you know my affinity for sports, so it should come as no surprise that 1) of course I had a great time, and 2) this post is almost 3,600 words. Thanks for sticking it out.
Looking up the 18th Fairway towards the green at Merion Golf Club’s East Course.