The Unfairway

The stadium scene.
June 22 1997 3:30 AM

The Unfairway

How golf destroys the masters of the game.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

Increasingly I fear that golf has become auto racing. What makes it so riveting are the crashes. The psychological breakdowns. The spasms of self-destruction. The carnage.

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We saw that a year ago at the Masters Tournament with the Greg Norman debacle. Norman had always dreamed of winning the Masters, and something had always gone wrong. This time Norman went into the final round with a lead so commanding--six shots--it seemed to be even Norman-proof. What ended up happening was that he merely raised the standard by which other blown tournaments will now be judged. Watching Norman that day was sickening, like seeing Swede Savage crash at Indy, or Lawrence Taylor break Joe Theismann's leg. I remember calling old friends that night, people I hadn't spoken to in a long time. In a world of pain, people need friends.

Until this past weekend Norman was the No. 1 golfer in the world, according to the Sony rankings. He's won more money on the PGA Tour than anyone else in history, yet he will go down in history as a man of extraordinary misfortune--not so much a failure as a fatality, a victim of golf's surgical ability to bring to the surface a man's mental weakness. I still root for Norman, but I also think of him as a cadaver. He looks a mite gaunt, and has been prone to fits of rage lately. He screamed at a volunteer at the Kemper Open for making a joke about President Clinton blowing out his knee at Norman's house. At another point he misheard a fan's comment, thought he was being heckled, and gave the fan the finger. Then at the U.S. Open Championship he played two rounds in 14 over par, a repulsive performance. Our hero.

Two weekends ago at the Kemper, Mark Wiebe had the tournament pretty well wrapped up. It was 11 years since he had won a tournament. With a one-shot lead, Wiebe played the 17th hole perfectly, hitting safely over a pond to the fat part of the green. He lagged his putt to within about two-and-a-half feet. He had a straight uphill putt for par. He could make a thousand such putts in a row on a practice green. But golf is about the torture of the weak. Wiebe yanked his putt left and lipped it out. His wheels had come off. He'd hit the wall. There was nothing left but shards of metal and the wails of the doomed. He was still tied for the lead, but that didn't matter, since the devastation of missing that putt ensured that, on the 18th, facing an almost identically easy putt, three feet straight uphill, he didn't even catch any lip, missed it wide left, game over. The world is a dark, cruel place. A few days later, at the U.S. Open, Wiebe had a "five-putt green," something so awful you almost never hear of it--five putts on a single green before the fucking ball went in the fucking hole.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

How did golf become a sport of woe and misery? It may be that the media spotlight is that much more intense, and golfers know how many cameras are trained on their quivering hands. Maybe it is the purses--a missed putt now can cost a golfer a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Or maybe it is that the competition is so stiff that no single player can dominate like Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson did in their heydays. No one out there has a prayer of winning 20 major tournaments like Jack Nicklaus did. Many golfers win just one tournament in their entire career--some minor Kmart Classic sort of thing--and even the golfers who are good enough to win the majors tend to win only one or two. The window of opportunity is small, and they all fear having it slam shut on their fingers.

The antidote to the recent trend of golf tragedy has been Tiger Woods. Coming into the U.S. Open, he had never lost anything that mattered to him. He'd won six USGA championships in six years--three junior titles and then three consecutive U.S. Amateurs. He'd won his first major as a pro, the Masters, in April, and had done so with such record-smashing brilliance that he'd actually exceeded the hype that had been built up around him. When he arrived for the U.S. Open, it was as though Jackie Kennedy had showed up.

"Let's go over there and get Tiger's divot," I heard a fan say one day, referring to the tiny chunk of grass and dirt that Woods had scraped from the fairway on one of his shots.

The U.S. Open is the sport's biggest event. The British Open has a longer history and the Masters is more familiar--it's played on the same course every year, and some of us can recite the yardage from tee to green on the back nine--but the U.S. Open has the strongest field, the toughest conditions. Everyone was buzzing about the rough, the dreaded rough, the heinous and monstrous rough, 5 inches officially but sometimes looking more like a dozen--ravenous, insatiable rough, a form of grass so severely impairing a golf swing that it was more like an animal.

Woods never got close to leading the tournament, much less winning. I followed him some on the first and last days, and he was spectacular. No one has as much club speed, and when he strikes a ball, it whistles, rockets out into space on a line and then, astonishingly, rises, as though hitting another gear, some kind of warp drive, before parachuting to Earth uncannily close to where Woods wants it to go. His problem was that the U.S. Open, particularly Congressional Country Club's blue course, rewards conservative, risk-averse players. The way to win is to shoot pars--on the fairway, on the green, two-putt for par, go to the next hole. Woods played conservatively, rarely using his driver; but, for all his genius, he's not the straightest golfer in the world, and he ended up in the spinach (isn't it fun to use sports clichés!) too often. That he didn't putt well ensured that he wouldn't be a factor. He finished tied for 19th, and then told the press that "the suffering's over," that the course had "humbled me big time." He was still a superstar--in fact, the Sony computer bumped him to No. 1, past the fading Norman--but you could imagine that he was on his way to becoming just a golfer. (And, eventually, a broken man.)

The final day I was appalled that the only people leading the Open were plodders and mopers and grumpers and nobodies. They were men without color, literally wearing gray and beige and brown. The final four of the day were tied at 4 under par going down the back nine, and it was obvious, watching them labor away, unsmiling, that this was just an endurance test to see who could avoid crashing and disintegrating on national television. You had to root for perennial nice-guy Tom Lehman, who'd led after three rounds of the Open for the third consecutive year. I could not bring myself to root for Jeff Maggert, as his name bothers me, sounding too much like a taunt--Maggert! Maggert! Also he'd committed the sin of winning a pile of money on tour, $3.6 million, while winning only a single tournament. Ernie Els alone among the final four had won an Open, but was a vanilla man, plain-looking and apparently without any emotions whatsoever. And finally there was Colin Montgomerie, a multiple failure in major tournaments, surely the best player in the world never to have won one of these things.

First, Maggert destructed. He got on a bogey run that wouldn't quit, and he grimmed his way right out of the tournament. Then Lehman hit into the rough by the 16th green and lost a stroke. The next hole, the 17th, we all watched in gut-wrenching horror as Lehman hit his approach shot into the pond. Nice guys finish third.

Lehman said afterward, "I feel an incredible amount of pain."

Just before Lehman's disaster, Montgomerie had made the crucial mistake of the tournament. He and Els were on the 17th green, tied at 4 under. Montgomerie had a five-foot putt. He waited for the group on the nearby 18th green to finish. He waited and waited. Minutes passed. Sometimes a person in life is faced with a crucial decision, a life choice, a yes-or-no question, a moment when action must be taken decisively without pause or excessive contemplation. Everyone watching thought: Hit the putt! Just walk up and hit it! Montgomerie wandered around the green, waiting for total silence. Tommy Tolles, a golfer finishing on 18, made some gestures as though he was going to throw his ball in the lake, and the crowd cheered him on, which got Montgomerie flustered again. The man just did not want to hit the putt. Because he knew it wasn't going in. He knew he was about to crash.

Finally he walked up and almost half-heartedly tapped at the putt, which missed, and he lost, and when it was over he cried.

Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post.