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Friday, June 16, 2006

The 2006 U.S. Open - Day 1 is just "getting to know you"

Witness now the rise and fall of a Day 1, back nine love affair.

Day one of the U.S. Open is just “getting to know you.” It’s nothing more than a first date. It’s a giggle, a flirt, a flip of blond hair, a flash of a golden tanned leg, maybe even a torrid kiss or two and promises of more to come. But as David Howell found out, falling in love on the first date is for hopeless romantics.

No, there is no room for careless, flighty love or the milk of human kindness at the U.S. Open. Howell joins a along list of first day stars that rose quickly, then fell back again with a sudden jolt.

Ever heard of George Burns? No, not the cigar chomping comedian, the journeyman golfer who torched the front nine at Pebble Beach on Day 1 in 1982. He was -6 after seven holes and had everyone scrambling for the media guide p[layer bios. But he fell to earth with a crash a few holes later.

Spunky LPGA teen phenom Morgan Pressel was five under on her front nine at Cherry Hills during day one of last years Women’s Open. She finished even par, giving back just enough shots to lose the cushion that might otherwise have been enough to foil Birdie Kim’s miracle bunker shot.

At 3:30 yesterday with Bo Van Pelt at -1 and tied for the lead with Colin Montgomerie there were few people following Howell, Van Pelt and Geoff Ogilvy. Then the whole group got in the zone.

“They were picking each other up” said Carrie Van Pelt, Bo’s wife – who was walking the course despite looking as though she might give birth to Bo’s unborn son Crew at any moment. “They are scrambling and hitting good shots all together.”

Picking each other up is a strange phenomenon. Sometimes players play to the level of their competition. Both Michael Campbell and Tiger Woods struggled horribly against Winged Foot yesterday, combining for an aggregate of +12. But as Carrie and her mom watched, surrounded just by a few family and friends, the flirting blond that is day one at the Open started the tease.

Yes, this siren is alluring, exotic, the kind of woman a man meets – well – once or twice in a lifetime. If he meets her at all. She’s no artificial passing beauty – no Jessica Simpson, no Paris Hilton.

The Open doesn’t wear makeup, flip-flops or hoopskirts.

No, the Open’s beauty is timeless, ageless; deep bright sparkling blue blue eyes, a full bloom for her lips, long thin legs, demure cheeks, long fiery red hair.

She started teasing him just as he had her all to himself.

A drained thirty-footer here, a scrambling par there, two more long birdie putts there the next thing you know, the small crowd of well wisher was being elbowed out of the way by TV camera after TV camera, New Yorker after New Yorker.

Still the trio carried on. They played in a stony silence – even the three caddies let each man walk alone. The players didn’t even talk to each other as the back nine unfolded. It was more like watching the rest of the baseball team leave the no-hitter throwing pitcher to himself to concentrate.

Even as Howell made his back to back birdies, the crowd was tiny and quiet. The occasional golf clap sputtered from the small crowd. You could only muster one table full of their gallery members for a game of Texas Hold ‘em.

But then, just as things started to get interesting and the crowd swelled to play follow the leader. Then the girl turned her head away – even as her suitor was doing and saying everything right.

For goodness sake, he was -4. On track to a 66, he was poised to make love to her with his golf clubs.

Standing on the 15th tee at -4 with a two iron in his hands for what Howell later called “one of the easiest shots I had all day” he pushed it in the rough.

Still Howell played safe. Hey, if the girl is angry, some flowers and candy should do the trick. Instead of forcing the issue and risking sinking one in the creek, Davis asked for his wedge, laid up to 100 yards and tried so save par the smart way. He bogeyed, but that’s OK. It could have been worse. -3 is still one hot first date.

Howell smoked his Cleveland Hy-bore of the tee at the brutal 487 yard 17th. A perfect shot to the exact right third of the fairway. His 6-iron went ONE FOOT over the green, but lay in rough that was over the tops of his shoes.

Sooth the girl’s feelings, make her laugh, make her comfortable. Look in her eye and make her laugh again. He nestled his chip within two feet.

Then came another frustrating miss. The green was now ringed with well-wishers, but Howell flashed a pained expression and turned around looking back down the fairway for a microsecond.

That was the one place on the hole where when he looked away, there were no fans. He tried to compose himself, but missed two-footers aren’t good for making eye contact with the gallery.

Once had the girl all to himself. Now, only one shot clear of the field, more suitors were talking to his girl.

When the dust on 18 had cleared and Howell’s final double bogey had dropped him a shot behind Colin Montgomerie you could sense the frustration in his eyes and clipped speech. The girl had gone home with someone else. “With the last holes, I’m really frustrated and I’m fed up” he lamented. “If the greens get firmer, this course is just going to get harder and harder.”

He had the girl…all to himself. And now he didn’t have her at all.

Once again at the Open, the more experienced, phlegmatic player survived. “I think the expectation was lower this particular year or the last few years and it does make a difference because you are more relaxed.”

Jim Furyk echoed those sentiments. One stroke off the lead, along with crowd favorite Phil Mickelson, Furyk said “today is nothing more than a good start and something to build on.”

The U.S. Open is a tough first date, she is flighty, flirtatious and certainly not monogamous. It’s a long tortuous courtship – full of breathless love, fiery passion, bitter disappointment and other lovers waiting ruthlessly take her away. Men would gladly dash themselves upon the rocks for her. But the Open is the girl that has no qualms whatsoever about going home with someone else’s date.


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