Few would have predicted Jim Furyk and Stephen Leaney as the most likely pairing to be last out on Sunday at the Olympia Fields in Chicago in the 103rd playing of the US Open. Yet, despite the odds, there they were. Not exactly an Olympian pairing by any standard but leading the US Open nonetheless.
Jim Furyk won his national championship by three shots at eight under par. Only another five players broke par after 72 holes and doubtless the USGA officials will feel satisfied. At Bethpage last year, Tiger Woods took the title as the only player in the field to break par. Bethpage was long and placed a high premium on driving distance and accuracy off the tee. Olympia Fields was not long by US Championship standards but its quirky old character places different and more varied demands on the player and some would say that it is a better golfing test. In actual fact it is not a very special golf course; there are very many like it in the mid-west of the USA and, but for the scale of the place and the relative ease with which it can accommodate the US Open circus, its praises would remain unsung. It is largely unaffected by the winds off the great lake and only the artificiality of the ribbons of fairways and the penalising rough edging them that the USGA stipulate, Olympia Fields would barely trouble the bigger boys.
Jim Furyk took advantage of a course set up that, in retrospect, would appear to have been designed for him. He does not hit the ball far but he hits it very straight. He does very little that astounds, but he hits more greens in regulation than most and puts with monotonous consistency. He has not troubled the scorers in major championships before, having at best taken one fourth place in a major after 10 years on the Tour. He has won on the Tour, most memorably the Memorial in '99, but his millions have been generated from good finishes and lots of them. You can always count on Jim Furyk to turn up and play well without upsetting anyone in the process.
Unaffected by fads, Jim Furyk's swing has seen him through millions of dollars worth of prize funds and provided action pundits with hours of analysis. David Feherty memorably remarked that it reminded him of an octopus falling out of a tree. Such a sight is not commonplace but neither is Jim's swing. It is more like a folding sofa bed. His father is credited with it and one would be sympathetic if the man denied it for he cannot be in huge demand in the present day world of golfing orthodoxy. But his sons swing took him through three rounds of 67, 66 and 67 to give him a cushion of four shots going onto the last green in the US Open. He hit more fairways and more greens in regulation than anyone else. He took his routines on tee and greens unwaveringly through 72 holes without apparent fluster and left the worlds golfing pundits aggravated and speechless. He did everything right to the very end when he went off the green to greet statutory wife and smiling baby and clasp his devoted Dad on fathers day. Jim Furyk got everything right and brought bliss to middle America.
But Olympia Fields will not remember Jim Furyk. Instead, it will remember Bruce Edwards and Tom Watson. Drama has accompanied Watson like a shadow. He is an eight times majors champion who has trembled on the brink of alcoholism as well as on the end of his putter. He emerged from the designation of choker to be the world's best player and was much loved for it all. But despite the Battle of Turnberry, which he fought so unforgettably with Nicklaus, Watson's memorial is likely to be the 65 with which he led the first round of the US Open at Olympia Fields. It is 25 years since Watson played in his first pro event, which happened to be at Olympia Fields, and on his bag then was a kid called Bruce Edwards. Edwards was still on his bag on Sunday afternoon when the crowd rose to acclaim them as they approached the 18th green. Watson deserved every cheer but the cheers were for Edwards who is suffering from a terminal disease, and who is doubtless seeing, far less participating in, his last Open. Watson was a great champion but his support of Edwards through this hellish debilitating illness has shown that he is also a great man.
Olympia Fields may also be recalled as the place of confirmation of the Woods era's end. There were those who recalled Palmer's comeback from a seven-stroke deficit to take the US Open in 1960 and felt that the Tiger was about to make similar waves. But the Tiger now carries the baggage of his notoriety everywhere and the cost is great. From the first tee, when a fan whistled his appreciation in the middle of his backswing to the last call of 'youre the man' on the last green, Tiger never looked comfortable in Chicago.
Are the halcyon years over for the Tiger? This is the first time in four years that the Tiger has not held a major title. Is he in a slump from which he will come roaring back? He has won three out of the seven events he has entered this year. By any standards other than his own he would be said to be doing very well, but the fact is that he is not. His 75 in the third round in this years US Open is characteristic of too many third round flops. The Tiger simply no longer has the edge - that little piece of brilliance which, accompanied by the fortuitous bounce of the ball and a magical putting touch, made him invincible.
For the Tiger there is no era's end and his slump may be merely a breather. I'm still taking him, whatever the odds, for the Open.
|| 16 - JUNE 2003