When the last putt dropped at Olympic — or rather didn’t — there was a sense of emptiness. That was it? The tournament was over? I was left with a pit in my stomach, like the plain salad and soup wasn’t enough to ease my hunger, or I had just watched a really compelling movie that ended with an anti-climactic cliffhanger.
Now this was nothing personal against Webb Simpson, a deserving champion, who shot impressive rounds of 68-68 over the weekend to rally from four shots back heading into the final round of the U.S. Open. And it had nothing to do with the venue. I loved Olympic Club with the large Cypress trees lining the fairways, built on a pretty steep cliff. It was severe and challenging, but a pure and fair test.
The twist-and-turns throughout the day created a dramatic and intriguing Sunday. Then at the end, I was left with an odd pit in my stomach. Maybe it was the nervous excitement and buzz in the gallery, which provided interesting people-watching and raised eyebrows. I found myself pacing around and trying to find a direction, but the tournament was up in the air until the last group of Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell finished.
“I don’t know how to put that one into words,” Furyk began, “but I had my opportunities and my chances and it was right there. It was, on that back nine, it was my tournament to win and I felt like if I went out there and shot even par, 1 under, I would have distanced myself from the field. And I wasn’t able to do so.
“I played quite well, actually,” he paused, “until the last three holes…I was tied for the lead, sitting on the 16th tee, with wedges basically if I hit good shots, I got wedges in my hand or reachable par‑5s in my hand on the way in and one birdie wins the golf tournament, I’m definitely frustrated.”
It was gut-wrenching to watch Furyk collapse, starting with the tee shot that doomed him on No. 16. USGA head Mike Davis threw the players a curve ball and set the tees 100 yards forward on the left, one they hadn’t expected to be used.
Furyk was baffled and unprepared to play the tee shot and sniped it way left. He punched out and then hit the third short into a bunker and failed to get up-and-down. Bogey.
“I don’t know what to say, other than there’s no way anyone else in the field was prepared for the tee to be that far up. I just didn’t handle it very well. And I’m not sure I hit the wrong club off the tee, but probably hit the wrong shot.
“But the rest of the field had that same shot today,” Furyk said. “And I’m pretty sure no one hit as sh*tty a shot as I did. I have no one to blame but myself.”
He got in his own way and beat himself. The ever-patient and resilient golfer couldn’t recover. The U.S. Open will do that even to the toughest.
“Jim’s very competitive,” said Zach Johnson, who finished three hours before Furyk and McDowell teed off. “As a result, he’s lethal on the golf course when it comes down to crunch situations. When it comes to the crunch time, he wants the ball. He wants to be in there. He wants to have the putt. He wants to have the shot. That’s why he’s played well when he’s had to. He’s good at rising up and overcoming the nerves.”
When he reached an unfamiliar situation, he wasn’t able to adjust and made a poor swing. After that, he couldn’t regroup and hit the shots coming down the stretch. In fact, he admitted on 18 that he wouldn’t have been surprised if he had missed his last putt for bogey because “the air had been let out of the balloon.”
When I stepped out of the shuttle bus on Sunday morning and noticed the thick fog looming over Olympic Club, I said to a colleague, this is eerie — it feels like the scene is set for an epic disappointment. The atmosphere felt electrified yet spooky and the crowd was filled with…errr…characters, constantly hollering random phrases, like, “Esophagus” or “Hoochie Mamma.”
The previous days leading up to the final round of the U.S. Open had been unusually warm and mostly clear skies. The infamous haze that often casts a misty shadow over San Francisco had been absent, which was also a bit strange.
U.S. Opens at Olympic have resulted in several major letdowns. It’s almost become the venue’s M.O., but I don’t mean that in a negative way. If anything, it makes it more memorable even if it’s not always for the right reasons or the feel-good story.
Furyk took the blame for losing the tournament. After all, it was his to win. His matter-of-fact and candid answers made me wince. His disappointment and despair were contagious. He obviously didn’t want our sympathy, but it was hard not to just feel…blah.
It hurt more for Furyk than McDowell partly because of his unfolding in the last three holes, but also because of a sense of urgency as Furyk is now 42-year-old — and he was sick of people continuously bringing up his age.
“I don’t know how to say it ‑‑ in the proper sense. Two years ago I was the Player of the Year in the United States. I played poorly last year, and all of a sudden I’m middle‑aged. So I got to be honest with you with you, that pisses me off.
“I think I have a few more good years. I’ve been saying it all year and I would like to get another opportunity, whether or not that happens again in a major championship, I don’t know. I know I let one slide today and slip.”
Furyk made sure not to discount Webb’s fine play and holding his nerve.
“Hey, Webb went out there and got it,” said Furyk. “He went out and shot 68 and to do that on this golf course on a Sunday is phenomenal. He’s a very good player and a good person. So I’m very happy for him and (his wife) Dowd.”
It took Webb a moment to grasp that he had won since it’s not the ideal way you want to win a major — sitting in the locker room with your wife and hoping for the guys left on the course to botch it.
“When Graeme missed on 18 and I realized I had won, I just kind of shook my head in disbelief,” said Webb. “I couldn’t believe it actually happened.”
He wasn’t alone.
Furyk had taken 15 minutes to cool off before he spoke to the press. He looked understandably ticked off, but as he talked more, he calmed down. It was almost like it was a cathartic release. The mood was still melancholy. Other players felt it, too. So did the fans. (Maybe other than the Bird Man.)
After Furyk spoke with reporters, he did a Golf Channel interview. He was done with his media obligations, but put in extra time when a local radio guy asked if he’d chat with him. They spoke for quite a while, and at that point, Furyk seemed to get progressively calmer or less distressed — not that he looked overjoyed.
At the end, the radio guy told Furyk how disappointed he was and how hard he was rooting for him. He said he hadn’t felt that badly since maybe when Tom Watson lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink at the ’09 Open Championship.
“No one feels more sick than me,” he said, trying to force a tiny smile. “Well, maybe my son, actually. I had to calm him.”
Furyk’s wife Tabitha, along with his kids Caleigh and Tanner, were waiting for him on the stairs around the corner. He leaned over and put his arm his son’s shoulder and patted him on the cheek.
(Getty Images/Harry How)