The final round of the 104th U.S. Open here at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday was either a disgraceful comic mockery of a great sport or a test of such stupendous difficulty that it was the very apotheosis of the best in the game.
Except for the creative brilliance and relentless grit of winner Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson, who shot 1-over-par 71s on a day when the field average was an almost insane 78.7, the verdict might have been simple: String the U.S. Golf Association up by its thumbs for turning our national championship into a contest of dumb luck and great shots routinely ruined.
However, Goosen and Mickelson ennobled themselves so spectacularly, they deserve enormous credit before the USGA receives its mandatory and fully merited bludgeoning.
Goosen's gumption on recovery shots from deep rough was off any chart and his 12 one-putt greens were almost as astonishing as his ability to show absolutely no human expression whatsoever, regardless of what befell him. Since being struck by lightning long ago, Goosen has always had an air of genial obliviousness that may have been just the ticket for this Open.
For his part, Mickelson actually ran off three birdies in four holes on the back nine to take a momentary one-shot lead at the 16th hole. On a course where most players had no birdies at all, Phil had a streak of them that might have won him an Open to go with his April victory at the Masters. However, Goosen sank one last long putt, for a birdie at 16, to tie him.
Perhaps that blow, under such day-long pressure, was just too much for Mickelson, who has shown and shared his emotions with the adoring New York crowds who have adopted him as their contemporary Arnie. At the 71st hole, after seeing and hearing Goosen make his tying birdie, Mickelson knocked a four-foot putt four feet past the hole, then missed that comeback putt for a disastrous double bogey. That blunder simply made Mickelson the last victim of a diabolical day of mortifications.
"He made a mistake, and I was just lucky to hang on," Goosen said.
Mickelson matched that graciousness, saying, "I'm proud of the way I played. I'm just disappointed it wasn't enough."
With that, may we please dispense with the good taste? This was a day of almost hallucinatory golf embarrassments. Any drive, no matter how cleanly struck, that didn't bound into the rough was a blessing. Any iron shot into any green that didn't react like it had hit a cart path was a gift from the gods. And any putt that didn't roll entirely off the green was a bit of a surprise.
Mickelson was asked if this round was golf-as-farce or a USGA examination that merely brought out a different kind of greatness from him and Goosen. Usually political, Mickelson opted for the truth. "I felt like I played some of the best golf of my life. I putted better than I ever have in my life," said Mickelson, consider one of the best putters in history. "And I didn't break par. So you tell me."
"We are not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We're trying to identify them," said Walter Driver, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee, quoting former USGA head Sandy Tatum. However, Driver acknowledged that, in hindsight, he would have had the greens watered at 7 a.m. A far larger problem, however, was that the USGA took the calculated gamble of double cutting and rolling every green except No. 7 and 11 before this round.
In golf terms, that USGA decision qualifies as a mental quadruple bogey, a veritable snowman of bone-headedness.
If Goosen and Mickelson had merely shot the kind of scores that Tiger Woods (76), Ernie Els (80), Tom Kite (84) or Billy Mayfair (89) recorded Sunday, then no one would have broken par in this Open. Jeff Maggert would have won the crown by three shots by a kind of goofy pot-luck default over Mike Weir and Shigeki Maruyama. And all you would be hearing now would be howls of golf outrage.
And there's plenty of howling as is. Typical of the splendid fury here — after 28 players failed to break 80 — was Jerry Kelly's jeremiad.
"They've done it again," Kelly said of the USGA. "They've topped themselves. When are they going to grow a head? [They should] get off their high horse and be good to the game. It's an ego contest. . . . . They're ruining the game. This isn't golf. Period."
With that, Kelly asked Vijay Singh what he'd shot. "Oh, 78," Singh said. "You know, par."
Said Mark Calcavecchia after a 75: "The greens were dead from the start. It's the USGA's fault. They try to throw a little water on them to make it look like they're doing something. . . . . It just kid of beads up and rolls off like a waxed car. And on that note, I need a beer."
Some may need a case. Jay Haas, 50, somehow shot a 71, which he called "better than my 66" in the first round. When his 23-year-old son Bill (81), this year's collegiate player of the year, heard his dad's score, he just said, "Really! Impressive!"
Perhaps former Open champion Tom Kite had the most balanced, though still extremely critical view. He described the course as "over the top" — meaning an unfair, rather than a stringent, test. He maintained that both fairways and greens were so hard that good shots did, or did not, end up in awful places largely because of the luck of the bounce.
"They lost the war with the equipment. . . . Length means nothing right now," Kite said, referring to modern clubs and balls. "The thing that gives difficulty now is when you can't control the ball. . . . I think that's the only defense right now."
Important golf championships have seen some amazingly difficult conditions in the last 30 years, when players said they feared that the courses would become unplayable. In most cases, Mother Nature was the culprit with winds near 50 mph that turned hard courses into monsters. I saw almost all those famous golf massacres first hand. This was different. Two days of bracing summer breezes, the kind that made the Hamptons famous, were enough to turn the baked out, rolled down and excessively trimmed greens of Shinnecock into the equivalent of marble floors.
Perhaps young Bill Haas, from a distinguished golfing family that would never want to ruffle feathers, accidentally put it best.
"I couldn't even lean on my putter," he said. "It would slide out from under me. It was like glass."
Years from now, if the world is unfair, this Open will be summarized simply as the one that was ultimately decided when Phil Mickelson, tied for the lead, three-putted from four feet for a double bogey. However, if the world is more just, then this Open will be remembered as the one when both Mickelson and Goosen were asked to play their game at an almost superhuman level.
And, except for those four feet around the cup on the 17th green, both men actually proved that they were up to the task.