June 16, 2009
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - Tiger Woods held the putter with only his left hand as he rapped a 60-foot putt across the practice green. Then he hit another putt with his right hand, a third putt with both hands in conventional style.
He asked for the wedge to try a variety of shots out of sticky grass, searching for the best approach.
Woods knows all the drills.
This is his 15th straight year playing in the U.S. Open, and his third attempt this decade at joining an elite group as back-to-back champions in the so-called toughest test in golf.
Woods is the overwhelming favorite at Bethpage Black, where he won by three shots in 2002 as the only player to finish under par. The challenge figures to come from a familiar cast, whether it's Padraig Harrington or Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy or Jim Furyk.
What gives the U.S. Open its charm, however, are the long shots.
Ogilvy finished warming up on the range and walked past players he had never seen. One of them was Scott Lewis, a 20-year-old amateur still trying to get over the shock of playing in his first U.S. Open.
Lewis just finished his sophomore year at the University of California Santa Barbara, where his best finish this year was a tie for seventh in the Wyoming Desert Invitational. An alternate from sectional qualifying, he didn't learn he was in the U.S. Open until Friday. Before he could blink, he had an audience like never before.
"People are watching me hit balls," he said. "First time that's ever happened."
Stranger still was walking to the range and hearing someone ask for an autograph. He kept right on walking until his father, who is caddying for him, realized no one else was around and tapped his son on the shoulder to sign.
On the far end of the range was Clinton Jensen, a 34-year-old father of two young girls who quit golf for a couple of years until he realized he couldn't stay away. He is playing the Tar Heel Tour and wants to try Q-school again this fall, hopeful this time he can get past the second stage for the first time.
"I just couldn't stay away," Jensen said.
For every Woods, Mickelson and Harrington who are trying to add to their collection of majors, there are players like Lewis, Jensen and 19-year-old David Erdy who are simply happy to be at Bethpage Black.
The U.S. Open is the only major where more than 50 percent of the field is open to any player willing to qualify. The last player to go through 18-hole local qualifying and 36-hole sectional qualify and win the U.S. Open was Orville Moody in 1969.
They all know their odds are longer than some of the par 4s at Bethpage Black.
The thrill was getting here.
Lewis, who had the seventh-best scoring average of the Gauchos this year, made a 35-foot birdie putt on the final hole of sectional qualifying that got him into a four-man playoff for three spots. With jangled nerves, he made bogey and was first alternate.
The USGA handed him a packet of instructions for alternates -- they cannot play the golf course, but they can use the practice facilities as long as they're not taking up space. Lewis didn't even bother opening the envelope.
"Then I got a text at 5:24 a.m.," he said, a small detail that recites as easily as his birthday. "It said to call the USGA because there's been a change in plans. I couldn't get back to sleep."
Lewis replaced Dudley Hart, who withdrew with an injury.
He finished final exams on Sunday, played in the sectional qualifier Monday, moved out of his house in Santa Barbara on Tuesday because his lease was up, traveled home to Henderson, Nev., spend Thursday unpacking, then began booking flights to New York.
He took a redeye and arrived Monday morning.
"My head is spinning," Lewis said. "Everything happened so fast."
It's about to hit warp speed. He signed up for a practice round Monday afternoon, which was cut short when mostly sunny skies gave way to afternoon thunderstorms, dumping even more water on a Bethpage Black course already softer than the USGA prefers. That will make it play even longer than its 7,406 yards, no matter what tees are used.
"I just want to learn as much as possible," Lewis said. "We'd all like to be out there and play well. I'm looking forward to competing."
Jensen made a 30-foot birdie putt on his last hole of sectional qualifying, then lost to a birdie in the playoff and was first alternate. He was debating whether he should even come to New York until he learned Thursday he would be among the top alternates. Three days later, he got in when former Masters champion Trevor Immelman withdrew with an elbow injury.
And to think he gave up on golf after missing the cut in his only other U.S. Open, in 2005 at Pinehurst No. 2.
"I was just beating my head against the wall," he said.
Something told him not to stray too far, however, for he took a job at Lost Tree Golf Club in south Florida. He might find a new career someday, but he wasn't ready to quit just yet.
"This is all I've ever done since I was 15," Jensen said.
Then he looked around a practice range that was quickly getting crowded, and bleachers that were getting full.
"I'm having a great time," he said.
Over on the putting green, Woods finished his short-game practice, motioned to his caddie and coach, and walked briskly to the parking lot, just another day at the office.