Fans saw a darker side of golf

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Certain sports events have a real posterity, leaving echoes that last long after the final run, point, goal or putt. The 2002 U.S. Open is likely to be one of them, and not because it resulted in major championship No. 8 for 26-year-old Tiger Woods.

Woods has won six of the past nine majors, a streak that has only one parallel in golf. Beginning in 1950, Ben Hogan won six of eight majors in which he played.

Hogan, not entirely by choice, was hand-picking his starts. He always skipped the PGA because his injured legs didn't hold up to the event's match-play format, which required the eventual winner to play 36 holes on four consecutive days. He played the British Open only once during the streak, winning it in 1953.

Jack Nicklaus? He once won six of 17.

Woods takes on anyone, anytime, anywhere and his streak ought to be regarded as more impressive than Hogan's, particularly since no one can say when it might end.

Woods' No. 8 significant

As far as the significance of No. 8, which ties Woods with Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer, it's safe to say Woods had to win No. 8 before he goes on to win Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12. Woods' ultimate margin over Phil Mickelson, the world's No. 2-rated player, over 72 holes at the Bethpage Black Course was three strokes. Woods' margin over the rest of the field was five strokes. With the lone exception of Mickelson, Woods' challengers, as they often do, melted like ice cream in July.

This included 22-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia, the first younger player to emerge as a threat to Woods' stranglehold on the game. Garcia talked big, saying he wasn't intimidated by Woods and wanted his spot in the day's final twosome opposite the winner. He even suggested, on Friday, that Woods gets "star," i.e., preferential treatment, at both the majors and on the PGA Tour.

The Garcia who showed up, however, seemed more interested in getting back on Woods' A-List than in making any statements, even after Woods opened the fourth round with two straight three-putt bogeys.

On the fourth hole, Woods was swinging out of the rough and gouged out a haystack-sized divot, which flopped into a bunker. Garcia actually scrambled into the sand and took care of the house-keeping. It's hard to beat someone while you're auditioning for a job as his caddy.

The game was not as close as the final score (Woods 72, Garcia 74) indicated. Mickelson, at least, matched par with a 70. It was a virtual replay of the final round of this year's Masters, when the Tiger shot an ordinary 71 and none of the tabbycats chasing him could manage a round under par.

The real Bethpage legacy, of course, was the after-dark finish. This was the product in small part of a 50-minute rain delay and in large part of the USGA's total sellout to NBC, which wanted the leaders teeing off for the final round at 4 o'clock. Fear not, however. "For the good of the game," the USGA put its foot down and wouldn't go a minute later than 3:30.

What were they looking for, twilight rates? If the rain had lasted another 10 or 15 minutes, everyone would have needed to reassemble this morning so Woods and Garcia could have played one more hole. It was entirely what the USGA deserved.

Paying the price

And it was an unneeded reminder to everyone who'd paid $65 (minimum) for a ticket that ticket-holders are just part of the TV backdrop. So what if they didn't get to see a champion crowned? What was important to the USGA was helping NBC skim a ratings point or two off "60 Minutes."

In NBC's defense, many in the crowd probably didn't care. This was golf played in a Yankee Stadium or Giants Stadium atmosphere, which wasn't always a bad thing. If players didn't like it, though, they shouldn't have been afraid to speak out, which they were.

Its just another part of the legacy of Bethpage, a place we won't soon forget.

Although there will be days when we want to.

John Markon is a columnist for The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch.

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