June 21, 2002
The fifth hole at Bethpage Black is a 451-yard par 4, slightly dogleg left that plays even longer. A carry of 280 yards over a fairway bunker places the ball in the best position for an uphill shot to a smallish green that seems to slope away rather than toward the golfer.
Shorter drives to the left of the bunker can reach the fairway, but make the approach far more difficult. Landings on the left side of the fairway or beyond force the second hit to clear a stand of trees to reach the green.
Green-side bunkers in the front and right side are deeply cut into the hillside below the green, with classic U.S. Open tall grass beckoning errant shots going left and short. A back bunker, not visible from the fairway but known to the golfers, will gladly accept a ball coming in at too low an angle, skidding across the green.
Kevin Conlon and I figured out that this was the place to be on Saturday. Except for the first two pairs of golfers, we watched the entire field play this hole as we stood at the back of the green, adjacent to the chute lines that guided the competitors to the sixth tee.
This spot gave us several advantages. We could easily see the drives and nearly all of the approach shots, and we had a clear view of the entire green. We could also hear the golfers and their caddies discuss the putts if they were close. In addition, we were in a position to talk briefly to the golfers as they strode by us, if they were so inclined. Most of them were, showing that they’re not just a bunch of uptight stiffs.
Here’s some of what we observed:
Jeev Mikha Singh drove into the front bunker, and hit a fine recovery to a spot 3 feet below the hole. His par-saving putt rolled nearly completely around the cup before falling in, causing a huge laugh and boisterous applause from the crowd. Singh looked directly at us and said with a grin, “I was testing the hole.”
Len Mattiace is at least 6 feet tall. His approach landed in the right front bunker. Once Mattiace entered the bunker we couldn’t see him until after his shot.
Scott McCarren pitched his third shot from off the green to about 6 feet. He carefully lined up his long putter, and missed the par-saving putt. As he walked off the green, he looked at his caddie and said, “Boy, that thing broke twice as much as I thought.”
It’s nice to hear the pros have the same reaction as the rest of us.
To some extent the fans at golf tournaments are more than mere spectators; their presence directly affects the competition. For example, the approach shot by Phil Mickelson flew over the right edge of the green and straight into a man, causing a huge gasp from the crowd. On the other hand, the ball stopped far closer to the hole that it would have otherwise. Mickelson walked up to the person and asked, “Are you all right? Sorry about that.” His flop shot rolled close to the hole, but he missed the par putt and bogeyed the hole. He then tossed the ball back to the person he hit, earning himself a loud cheer.
Sweden’s Niclas Fasth gave the crowd a lesson in how to play a downhill recovery shot when the green speed is running about the usual U.S. Open Mach 1. His approach landed in the deep rough just above the green near the back bunker. Fasth opened his lob wedge up to nearly flat, and took a surprisingly strong swing. The ball flopped out of the rough and landed in the fringe 18 inches away, where it then slowly rolled to a stop 15 inches parallel to the hole. He made the putt.
It was a great illustration of the difference between the pros and the rest of us.
There will be more Notes from the Open in a later column.