Streetcar Line

Stubbed Toes at Winged Foot

The Phil-Monty Show -- brain-lock exposed.

By 6.20.06

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Never in modern golf history has the final hole of a major championship produced such carnage, such incomprehensible carnage, as the U.S. Open's 72nd hole did at Winged Foot on Sunday.

Phil Mickelson's final-hole collapse resulted from incomprehensible recklessness. Jim Furyk's hiccup was due to incomprehensible hesitance. And Colin Montgomerie's demise was just plain incomprehensible.

Furyk forgot, as they say, to "dance with who brung him." Mickelson's mistake was to ditch his steady date and dance with the same unattached bombshell who had broken his heart time and again. And Monty? Monty forgot everything he knew about dancing.

Not to put too harsh a point on it, but for all the modern equipment and improved physical fitness in today's game, the golf world apart from Tiger Woods has rarely looked so ugly and so bereft of, well, of real winners. Only time will tell if Sunday's champion, Geoff Ogilvy, has the right stuff for sustained excellence -- but except for Mickelson at the Masters in 2004, most of this decade's non-Tiger major winners were either fluke-ish journeymen or the beneficiaries of others coughing and gagging badly down the stretch. Where, apart from Tiger, is the Tom Watson making birdies down the stretch, the Lee Trevino chipping in, the Gary Player charging from nowhere, the Ray Floyd sinking his teeth into a title like a pit bull and refusing to let go until the title is good and dead?

At a British Open, Davis Love and Thomas Bjorn, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh shoot their own kneecaps so unknown Ben Curtis can win. At two PGAs Justin Leonard coughs blood so that, respectively, Rich Beem and Singh can take home the Wannamaker Trophy. Retief Goosen's two U.S. Opens were nice, but he had to rely on Stewart Cink three-putting from three feet in one and on Mickelson three-putting from five feet in another.

And we still await the day when somebody, anybody does to Tiger what Watson and Trevino so often did to Jack Nicklaus or what everybody in the universe seemed to do to Greg Norman (on those occasions when Norman wasn't doing himself in, as he did at least once in all four major tournaments): Step up and snatch a championship from the favorite rather than just hang on for dear life and have somebody else give it away.

SUNDAY JUST ADDED TO THE STRING of bizarrities that actually began with the British Open in 1999, when Jean Van de Velde triple-bogeyed the final hole to give the win to the unknown Paul Lawrie. Since then there have been the Cink and Mickelson three-putts, the Leonard flame-outs, a few falterings from Phil, a yip-fest from Freddie Couples and a couple of gaggings from Ernie Els (to go with a British Open Els won only when others limped home).

All of which set the stage for Sunday's excruciating finale. With Singh and Padraig Harrington already victims of collapses even before the final hole, the usually unflappable Furyk was the first to make the 72nd hole into a Funny Farm. A man of strict routines, Furyk's habits on the green are well known. He studies the putt from all angles, steps up to the ball as if to stroke it, then backs away entirely for one last look, and finally steps up to his final stance again, stares daggers at it for a final long heartbeat, and then, like a metronome, makes a confident stroke. And so he did all day Sunday except when, faced with a sidehill three-footer to finish at +5 and just one back of Phoolish Phil, he threw away his routine.

He studied the little putt. Check. He settled into his stance. Check. He backed away for another look. Check. He settled back into his stance again. Check. And then he threw the metronome away.

He fidgeted. He took a half-step back, and settled again. He pulled up again and stepped sideways, and took another practice stroke. He started to sidle back into his stance, thought better of it, and took yet another practice stroke. By which time probably three-fourths of the viewing audience was saying: "Hit the bleeping thing, already, Jim!"

Dance with who brung you, Jim. Stick to the routine that has always worked. You don't make side-hill three-footers when your whole routine is discombobulated. Instead, you stub the putt and watch your chances die.

Then it was Monty's turn, and Monty from the fairway is a lock-cinch for par. Entire Ryder Cup's have rested comfortably on his iron play and his putter, and his five previous near-misses in majors owed more to others' triumphs than to any bad mistakes of his own. But there was Monty, after a long wait for some Singh adventures, changing his mind at the last minute from a six-iron to a seven. Okay, fine: Adrenaline was pumping, so maybe it made sense. But what made no sense at all was that he changed clubs almost as part of the same motion with which he stepped into the shot itself. No return to his usual routine once he grabbed the new club; no chance for practice swings or slow-motion waggles to get the feel of the shorter club's different weight. Just a rushed, chunked spasm of the sort you might see on a muni course in mid-winter.

And then came the tough pitch shot -- 35 feet away, fine; just do the typical Monty thing of lagging the next putt near the hole and hoping it drops. Who knew Monty would turn into a Mickelson clone and bust the thing 12 feet beyond the cup? The one thing Monty always had been good for was a sort of phlegmatic practicality, as if to say, well, so I've made a mess of things, let's not compound the error with another one.

But he did compound the error, he did charge the hole like a bull seeing red, and of course he did end up three-putting into double-bogeyville and costing himself any hope of redemption.

AND THEN THERE was Phil. The new Phil, the Phil full of calculating efficiency that finally had replaced the reckless, 0-for-broke kid. The new Phil who trickled putts to the hole rather than jammed them into (or, too often, well past) the cup. The new Phil who played the percentages instead of trying to play the hero.

Not exactly.

Unable to hit a fairway since, it seemed, the Mesozoic Era, Mickelson nevertheless used driver off the tee. Okay, maybe he felt his four-wood was no more dependable than his driver. Whatever. It's what came next that made Mickelson vaudevillian and VandeVeldian. Faced with a choice between sensibility and sensation, he chose to try sensation -- but instead was left insensate. Needing only bogey for a tie, he played as if he needed birdie for even the barest chance of triumph. What he got, of course, was double-bogey, and defeat. He tried to dance with the bombshell, as he had tried so often before in his career, before he supposedly got smart -- and, as had so often happened before, he was left bereft.

Mickelson could have tried an easy pitch back to the fairway, then used one of his famously acclaimed wedge shots to try to get near enough to make a putt for par. Make the putt, he's the national champion. Miss it, and he still is in a playoff.

What should have made that safe choice so easy for him is that he had fallen victim to others using it against him not once, but twice. It was in the 1999 U.S. Open that Payne Stewart led Mickelson by one on the final hole. When Stewart missed the fairway, he didn't try to be a hero. He pitched out to the fairway, hit his short iron to the green, and sank the 20 footer for par and victory as Phil stood on the same green watching.

At the 2001 PGA, the story was much the same. Competitor David Toms, one stroke up on Mickelson, missed the fairway on the 72nd hole. Rather than going for the green, he laid up. Then came the wedge to 12 feet, and the par putt for victory. Safe. Smart. Effective. Three words that have yet to apply to Mickelson's whole U.S. Open career.

Anybody can fail to pull off a good swing at the right time. That's what Monty had done from the fairway. That's a physical error, but no sin. The cardinal sin is what Phil did by going for broke, what Monty did by bull-rushing his first putt, and to an extent what Furyk did by ignoring his routine. The cardinal sin is to start thinking abnormally. The cardinal sin is brain-lock. And the result is horribly painful even to watch.

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Notes: Americans looking for a silver lining from Winged Foot won't find one. Of the top 30 finishers, only 10 were American. Of those, only two -- Sean O'Hair and Aaron Oberholser -- are less than 32 years old.
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Quin Hillyer is executive editor of The American Spectator. He can be reached at hillyerq@spectator.org.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.