SAN FRANCISCO -- You can't really prepare for following a grouping of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson around The Olympic Club for 18 holes at the U.S. Open. Putting the three marquee names of the tournament together was the USGA at its finest, producing a group made for TV and meant to draw in the casual fan. Little did I know just how crazy the scene would be.
Woods, Mickelson and Watson went off early enough that getting to the course meant rising from bed before the sun rose in the east and, for the gallery, staking out a prime spot along the ropes. Fans had been there since the gates opened at 6 a.m., all in hopes of seeing the three titans of the sport. Never mind that any glimpse they'd get would be brief: It was all about the experience.
While the typical morning haze bathed The Olympic Club -- a fog that rolls in like clockwork at night and retreats midway through the next morning -- Tiger, Phil and Bubba, as the fans called them, began their preparations. Approaching the range from the outside, it was easy to figure out who was where. The grandstands were full, and crowds had built up around every opening on the right side of the practice area. Tiger was nearby, his warmup an event in itself.
The practice area, which includes a beautiful driving range, as well as putting and chipping areas, is isolated from the course, across a cart path from the first hole and well out of earshot of the ninth hole, where the grouping would begin its day. To shift gears from warmups to the round, the three had a journey ahead of them -- across a skybridge, then down a meandering concrete path leading to a flight of stairs two stories tall. The two places were worlds apart, a long way from each other in terms of physical distance and atmosphere.
Walking down the stairs to the eighth green and ninth tee, there was a buzz. For as far as the eye could see, fans were covering every inch of grass outside the gallery ropes and occupying every seat in the grandstands. It was 7:15 a.m., a little over an hour after the gates had opened, and the place was packed.
Inside the ropes, the cavalry was dense. Security, marshals and scoring officials stood at the ready. Photographers lined the inside of the ropes by the dozens. The media members milled about with notebooks in hand. One or two photographers and a few writers follow a typical group; Thursday's trio had an entourage that numbered more than I could count.
As the group's tee time approached, the buzz continued to build, with fans craning their necks to periodically check the top of the stairs, waiting for their arrival. The caddies came first, and surprisingly all were given a reception not unlike a typical tour player hears. And as Phil Mickelson began his descent onto the course, the energy began to build to a crescendo.
First came the screams of "Phil!" followed by cheers and yells for Bubba. Last, but certainly not least, Tiger made his way onto the course, and the tension and excitement were palpable. It was like a ball of energy ready to explode as the first tee shot was struck.
Unfortunately, the first hole was anticlimactic, especially considering the buzz and buildup. Mickelson literally hit his shot into a tree, having to go back and try again after a fruitless search for a ball that disappeared. Watson bombed his drive into the left rough right along the gallery line, burying it so deep that it took a huge hack to just advance his ball 10 yards. Woods was the only one who rose to the occasion, piping his drive down the center and calmly strolling off the tee to begin his round.
When walking along with a big-name group, one has to rely on others to figure out where shots are going and how they're struck. Rarely will a person in the gallery or inside the rope track the ball from strike to landing. There are no cameras tracking the ball flight and no announcers narrating each shot. Instead, hearing becomes the primary sense, as thousands listen for clues: the sound of contact; the reaction of the gallery near the green; the player's words after striking the ball.
Between the huge swaths of people lining both sides of the fairways outside the ropes and the numerous blind shots at The Olympic Club, it was almost impossible to track every shot. Even inside the ropes, it took a few holes to figure out where to set up shop in order to follow each shot. One quickly realizes how valuable the pairs of marshals holding yellow sticks used to signal which direction the ball is headed are.
Over the first 10 holes -- starting on No. 9 throws everything off -- the group failed to live up to its billing, in a way. The back nine is supposed to be the easier side of The Olympic Club, but none of the three could take advantage. Mickelson and Watson were all over the place, while Tiger was steadily recording pars, typically of the one-foot variety.
The strategies employed by each player and the dynamic of the group as a whole were fascinating to track. Bubba was going to be Bubba, which meant he'd break out the driver on each hole and try to hit it far enough down to, perhaps, negate the penal rough with a wedge -- a strategy doomed to fail from the beginning. Tiger was conservative, sheathing his driver and relying on woods and irons, a strategy that paid off. And Mickelson ... well, Phil spent his time searching for his swing and his ball. On No. 17, he hit his shot far enough right that it missed the green and hit three trash bags just inside the gallery ropes.
It didn't matter to the crowd, though: On every hole, a shouting match took place, with fans trying to outdo each other by screaming "Tiger!," "Phil!," or "Bubba!" -- the latter of which seemed like a fun thing to yell. Just sneaking a glimpse of the group was enough for galleries that consistently stretched five-deep along each hole.
For Tiger, the turning point came on 17. At the time, he was 1-over, but a solid tee shot and approach left him with an easy two-putt birdie, bringing him back to even-par. What came next was pleasantly surprising.
As Mickelson and Watson continued their meltdowns, Woods hit his stride. The first six holes on the front are the toughest stretch on the course; getting through at even-par is a big win. On the fourth, Tiger reminded everyone exactly what he's capable of doing. Standing just behind the green, I had a front row seat as Tiger stepped up and hit a beautiful draw into the front-left hole location, stopping the ball just a few feet from the pin. He drained the putt, pumped his fist, and the game was on. Moments later, Mickelson three-putted from 10-feet, wasting a rare opportunity to get on track.
Woods carried that momentum to the fifth, where he laid way back in the fairway and watched as his ball bounded to the back of the green. All he did was slam the putt into the back of the jar, eliciting the a huge roar from the crowd. Tiger was on his game, while the rest of the superstar grouping was on tilt.
At that point, The Tiger, Phil and Bubba Show became The Tiger Woods Experience, and we were all just along for the ride. The club twirls were plentiful and the command of the course was unmatched. We knew Michael Thompson had posted a number, but it didn't matter as the marquee group navigated its final holes. It was like walking in a bubble.
In fact, the entire round was like an isolated bubble, its own world inside of the galaxy that is the U.S. Open. The crowds were easily the largest, and the swarm of people moved about like cattle being herded from hole to hole. The action in front of us all kept us enraptured. Nothing else mattered.
By the end of it all, I felt like I'd been through a 12-round fight. Walking 18 holes at The Olympic Club, most of it through deep rough just off the fairway, is a battle. Being part of the army that documents the every move of the U.S. Open's marquee group just isn't as glamorous as it may sound, despite the front row seats.
But just as it was for the fans following along outside the ropes, the experience was more than worth it. Tiger's performance was just the cherry on top.
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