Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A View From Outside the Ropes at the US Open

By Roz Roberts III
When my sister and I arrived at the Olympic Club on Sunday to watch the final round of the US Open we knew that scoring was going to be tough.  A large fog bank had enveloped the course and was being blown by steady gusts off the ocean.  Add to that, the hole locations for round 4 were once again expected to provide a challenge.  Our goal for the day was to watch as much of Michael Thompson's round as possible. 
Hole locations for the 4th round
Since Michael started the day tied for 18th it didn’t appear there were many cameras following him so I’m assuming most of you didn’t get many details on his remarkable round.  Here are my recollections of how it played out.  I apologize for any mistakes but I wasn’t taking notes – I was enjoying the experience.  Also, if you really don’t want to read a blow by blow description of Michael’s round you should probably stop reading right about now!  And one more disclaimer, any distances I use are purely estimates on my part and in some cases my view was not the best.

Hole #1 (par 4)
Michael Thompson had just come off a round of four over par (74) in which he struggled to keep the ball in the fairways.  As he teed off on hole #1, things definitely started off on a positive note.  His drive split the fairway and was long.  His approach shot to the first green got an unlucky bounce as it hit the right side of a swale just short of the green and bounced right of the green and into the rough.  A beautiful chip out of the rough came to rest three feet from the hole which was cut in the back left portion of the green.  He made his par putt and the best round of the day was underway.

Hole #2 (par 4)
Michael’s tee shot on number hole #2 leaked into the left rough and was probably pushed that direction by the prevailing winds.  Michael’s second shot from the rough found the green and he two putted for a nice “easy” par.

Hole #3 (par 3)
After watching David Toms push his tee shot into the left bunker, Michael was able to find the green as his tee shot landed short and carried up into the front center of the green.  That left him with an uphill 25 foot putt to a hole cut on the right.  Michael’s putt carried good speed but didn’t go in but once again he had a tap in par.  David Tom’s was able to get out of the bunker and save par as well.

Hole #4 (par 4)
The tee shot on the fourth hole is elevated and drops to a fairway that slopes severely from left to right.  Michael’s tee shot landed in the fairway but took the slope and rolled into the primary rough.  Michael’s second shot from the rough landed on the left hand side of the green but the green’s were firm and the ball skipped through the green and off the back side shaved bank.  The ball came to rest on the bank  about 30 feet from the hole.  Michael’s third shot required him to navigate a hump and then a double break towards the hole.  Rather than chip from off the green, Michael pulled out his favorite club – the putter, and played a links style shot that climbed the bank, turned around the hump and then fed down the hill to come to rest around four feet from the hole.  Michael made the par putt and was even through the first four holes.

Hole #5 (par 5)
The tee shot on hole #5 is also elevated;  so much so that you can't see where the ball ends up from the tee.  After Michael struck a perfect tee shot, he took a second to point and us (the Thompson cheering section) and tell us "to keep it down".  He had a big grin and it was obvious he was relaxed and having fun which was one of his main objectives for the week.  His second shot landed on the front of the green around 25 feet from the hole.  I managed to get into the bleachers on this hole and had a great look at his birdie putt.  When Michael hit the putt I was convinced it was too high because it just didn’t seem to break to the hole as much as he hit it.  Even as the ball was three feet from the hole it looked like it wasn’t going to go in but when the ball got to about 2 feet it was slowing down and it basically made a left hand turn and did a 360 twirl into the hole.  The putt must have broken 3 or 4 feet but Michael played both the line and the speed perfectly.  It was the first time Michael had reached red numbers on the day.

Hole #6  (par 4)
To tell you the truth I don’t really have a strong recollection of this hole.  I remember his drive found the fairway again and I think he hit the green and two putted for par but don’t hold me to this one!

Hole #7 (par 4)
This hole was interesting because it was a drivable par 4 but it had terrible site lines for anyone who wasn’t in the grandstands.  According to Michael’s brother (who climbed into the grandstands to take a quick peek), Michael’s tee shot came up just short of the green in the fairway.  He chipped to about 5 feet from there and made the birdie putt to move to two under par.  At this point in the day, Michael was the only player on the posted leaderboards under par.

Hole #8 (par 3)
One of my favorite moments of the tournament came on this hole on Friday when Michael did a "happy dance” after making a birdie to finish his round.  On Sunday, his tee shot landed at the back right part of the green on the same level as the hole which was in the back left of the green.  Michael’s birdie putt came up about four feet short but he was able to make the par putt and move on to hole #9 at two under par.

Hole #9 (par 4)
Michael’s lone wayward tee shot came on hole #9.  He ended up way left beyond the primary rough and near a trash can.  The lie wasn’t too bad as this area was basically trampled down due to the foot traffic.  However, he was buried behind a large tree with low overhanging branches.  He tried to hit a low screamer under the tree and run it up the fairway as far as possible but it didn’t get enough altitude and buried in the primary rough about 20 yards from where he was.  I couldn’t see the ball because the rough was so thick and the ball sat down.  Somehow Michael hit his next shot from the rough onto the front portion of the green.  He left himself about a 25 foot par putt which he gave a valiant effort.  I was fairly far from the green but you hear those famous US Open groans and you know it came close but didn’t go in.  He tapped in for bogey.  It was the lone dropped shot on his card for the day.

On a side note, this hole provided one of the more unusual moments of the day as a rules official sprinted up to Michael to speak with him as he was walking up to the green.  We had no idea what the problem was but when we asked him about it later Michael said that the official asked him if one of the spectators had moved his ball while it was over by the trash cans.  The answer was “no”.

Hole #10 (par 4)
Michael once again continued his magnificent day off the tee as he hit his tee shot on hole #10 into the left side of the fairway on the dog leg right hole.  He was in a good position in the fairway but his iron shot found the left greenside bunker.  He made a great bunker shot that landed within two feet of the hole and he tapped in for par.

Hole #11 (par 4)
Once again, Michael found the fairway and then hit his second shot to about 8 feet.  Unfortunately this was another hole where we were standing below the hole so I didn’t have a great view but Michael dropped the birdie putt and once again moved to two under par.  It was about this time that a bunch of photographers and camera guys started following the group.

Hole #12 (par 4)
Michael played this hole almost as a carbon copy of hole #12 with the exception that he left himself about about a ten foot birdie putt.  The putt just slide by the hole and he tapped in for par.

Hole #13 (par 3)
This hole has a very tricky green with a left edge that slopes off the green into a shaved fairway.  The hole was in the back right on Sunday.  Michael’s tee shot landed short and left and looked like it was going to stay on the green but just as it looked like it had stopped rolling, the hill took it and it rolled off the green short and left of the hole.  Michael pitched out to about four or five feet.  He took a long time over this putt but when he eventually pulled the trigger he drained it to save par.

Hole #14 (par 4)
This hole has an elevated tee and the fairway has a dog leg right but large trees down the right side and some very strategically place trees on the left side.  Michael’s drive found the fairway.  His second shot was online but came up just short of the green in the fairway neck of the green.  He putted from the fairway and the putt was right online but came up just a tad short.  He tapped in for par.

Hole #15 (par 3)
We got stuck on the other side of hole #16 so I didn’t get a good look at this par three but Michael’s tee shot landed on the green about 10 feet from the hole.  He just missed the birdie putt and tapped in for yet another “easy” par.

Hole #16 (par 5)
If you followed the tournament, you know about hole #16.  It was the longest par 5 in US Open history measuring a mammoth 670 yards.  On Sunday, they moved the tee up so it was only 575 yards.  Michael’s tee shot was long and straight and found the center of the fairway.  He hit his second shot into the fairway with about 80 yards remaining.  His wedge into the green was hit perfectly and stopped on the green about five feet from the hole.  He made the birdie putt and was three under par on the day and two over for the tournament.

Hole #17 (par 5)
Statistically, hole #17 was the easiest hole on the course for the field but for Michael 17 seemed a bit of an enigma.  On Friday and Saturday his tee shots were left of the fairway and had tree problems.  On Sunday, his tee shot missed the fairway to the right but at least he didn’t have to contend with trees.  The ball came to rest in the primary rough.  He laid up into the fairway and then hit what he described as his best wedge shot of the tournament.  He landed the ball just past the hole and got it to spin backwards leaving himself an uphill birdie putt of about five feet.  Michael missed the birdie putt but was able to tap in for par.  Michael later he said that he didn't go through his entire pre-shot routine over the birdie putt and he said "I pulled it as soon as I hit [it]."

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/06/18/4569449/nerves-get-to-michael-thompson.html#storylink=cpy

Hole #18 (par 4)
I’m sure most of his 18th hole was covered on TV (I still haven't had a chance to go back through the DVR coverage) but here is how it played out.  His tee shot went right into the tree line but he got a kind bounce as the tree kicked the ball back into the fairway.  He had a longer than normal iron shot into the green.  His shot into the green caught the right rough just off the green but it was hole high.  The hole was cut in the front left just thee paces over the front bunker.  Michael’s chip from the rough didn’t quite break enough but he had an easy tap in to finish his round at three under par (67).

Michael tees off on the 18th hole

The Waiting Game
As a cheering section, we convened in the clubhouse to see how the rest of the tournament played out.  I didn’t think two over was going to be enough but as the day wore on and guys kept falling down the leaderboard, it looked better and better.  We were excited because we knew that Michael had accomplished several things no matter where he ultimately finished:  he had locked up invitations to the 2013 US Open (top 10 and better) and the 2013 Masters (top 8 and better), he had also pretty much locked up his 2013 PGA Tour card and an invitation into the PGA Championship later this year.  Michael had to do several interviews but eventually came and sat with us as we watched the end of the tournament.  As you know by now, two over came in second by a shot to Webb Simpson.

The Medal Ceremony
After the tournament was over, Michael told us to come down to the 18th green.  He was presented with a silver medal for being the US Open runner up.   It brought to mind the medal ceremony I got to witness when they presented Michael with his low amateur medal in the 2008 US Open.  The big difference was the size of the crowd.  In 2008 there were about 20 people around and this time there were thousands.  In either case, it was very cool - even with the “chicken guy” who interrupted Webb Simpson and Bob Costas.

Overall Impressions
So this article might have sounded like Michael played the par fours as "fairway-green-two putts for par" - what's so hard about that?  First of all, hitting fairways on this course was no easy feat.  Trees hugged fairways or overhung them entirely.  Hills and slopes wanted to take balls from the fairway into the rough.  In order to hit a fairway you had to shape the ball and land it in a very narrow window.  Some holes you had to shape right to left, others it was reversed.  On Sunday, nobody did it better than Michael.  Michael hit 11 out of 14 fairways to lead the field.

Add to that that I used the term "easy" par several time throughout this post.  In reality there were no easy pars on this course.  Any putt longer than 18 inches was a challenge.  Michael lead the field in putting for the week and I don't remember him missing a single putt inside of five feet.

No words I give you will accurately convey just how good a round Michael played on Sunday.  It was a thing of beauty.  When you add the situation on top of that - the final round of the US Open - it is just all the more impressive.    It was great to see him come back from his rounds on Friday and Saturday where he was grinding.  For those of us following, it was just an amazing day.  We were (and still are) just so happy for Michael to perform as well as he did.  And the best part of it?  He had fun doing it!

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