Tiger and Phil Head to Bethpage

Long Island’s financial stimulus package known as the United States Open Golf Championship is coming back this June and the people’s club at Bethpage State Park will once again become the venue for the world’s most difficult golf tournament. Augusta National has its Georgian tradition and sloping greens, the British Open has wind and rain, the PGA Championship still doesn’t move me, but the US Open has the opportunity for major humiliation by public figures. A.W. Tillinghast’s Black Course is hilly, wooded and highly punitive, with the rough grown to mid-shin.

This year’s pre-game buzz involves Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the yin and yang of modern golf. Their battles are a clash of temperaments and styles, of righty versus lefty, cool and calculating versus emotive and imaginative. They attract different, massive armies when they play on Long Island. Before Tiger rose to prominence, pot-bellied pro golfers used to openly smoke cigarettes on the course. But Tiger is an overpowering, highly trained athlete, and he changed the game so much that now everybody has to workout, even the caddies. Tiger fans tuck their shirts in their pleated pants. They wear a Stanford or TW cap, facing forward. They are Army-strong in their devotion to the Sergeant’s son.

Phil Mickelson appeals to the Everyman. A Phil fan might just as easily be a Lesh fan (of Grateful Dead fame) as a Mickelson fan. Phil fans will wear a west coast golf club shirt at an east coast tournament, just to stick it to The Man. The tie-dyed golf cap from Torrey Pines might spin backwards after a couple of brews under the hospitality tent. Phil fans love the bend-the-ball artistry of Mickelson’s long game, his revolutionary flop-shot, his dazzling sand play and the smoothest putting stroke since Gentle Ben Crenshaw or, say, Tiger Woods. At Bethpage this June, some Phil fans will migrate across the Black Course in lovesick herds, heckling his opponents as if they were inebriated sophomores at a college lacrosse game. They love to help the underdog—and Phil is definitely that. And because this is Long Island, things can get noisy. Last time out at Bethpage Black, things got Rider Cup noisy. So loud it annoyed Tiger. Oh, he still won (and Phil finished second), but he glowered at the galleries while he did it, later saying some of the spectators’ comments crossed the line, though not the majority.

“The reception of the New York fans was amazing the last time (2002), and I’d like to give them something more to cheer about,” Mickelson told Pulse. “I admire the USGA for bringing the Open to public facilities such as Bethpage and Torrey Pines in San Diego.”

Expect another memorable battle here in 2009. Phil is chasing Tiger as Tiger is chasing history—the eighteen major championships that Jack Nicklaus claimed in his career, a number once thought unattainable. Tiger has won fourteen majors so far, to Mickelson’s three. Tiger has fully recovered from knee surgery and is fit. Phil has tweaked his full swing, simplified his short game and won twice in 2009. With victories at Doral (despite a visit to the hospital with a stomach virus) and the Northern Trust Open, Mickelson is now ranked second in the world. At Doral, Tiger shook off the last of the eight-month’s rust and shot 68-68 on the weekend to crack the top ten. Both men are mentally fresh, ready to reengage at the Masters in April and on Long Island in June.

“We’ve all been able to benefit from having the most recognizable athlete in the world playing our sport,” said Mickelson. “I love the challenge of trying to win a golf tournament with Tiger in the field. I hope he stays healthy because it’s evident the game of golf needs him, especially at this time. The economy has been struggling, the sponsors have been struggling. To have him back is so critical for the sport.”

Tiger is thinking Grand Slam, as he does every year. Phil is thinking of ways to stop him, because he can’t trust the other guys to do it.Whatever it takes, Phil will do. One of the things Phil fans admire is that Phil takes crazy chances and he sometimes goes down in flames. Tiger only looks like he’s gambling—and the network tower-wizards murmuring nonsense about bravery and recklessness are stringing the audience along. They know damn well Tiger practiced the ridiculous shot he’s contemplating a hundred times that week and has a high possibility of flushing it pure. Phil just thought of his miracle shot now. You can see it in his eyes. That’s what makes it fun. And when one of these recovery-wishes blows up in his face, the way our own usually do, Phil grimaces and grins, gets it up-and down for par, grimaces and grins again, then strides to the next tee a better man. But getting it up-and-down at Bethpage Black is no simple matter. Even Tiger has touted it as the toughest par-70 course he’s ever played. The bunkers are cavernous and the well-guarded greens often elevated. Miss too many greens and somebody else is champ.

We’d all like to be as dominant as Tiger, but that’s obviously impossible. Nobody works harder, or cares more about his legacy, and he started this job when he was two years old. Tiger owns that turf with passion and sweat, and even Phil’s fans concede the point. But we would like to handle our own public setbacks the classy way Phil does, and that seems within reach. Tiger’s got the power andmajesty. Phil’s got high risk and high style. Long Island welcomes them both back.

john westermann

John Westermann teaches at Stony Brook University in the MFA in Writing and Literature Program. His novel Exit Wounds was a major motion picture starring Steven Seagal.