Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's not 200 but 50 majors isn't bad

Reading and jealously chuckling through the highlights from Dan Jenkins’ work covering 200 of golf’s major championships sent me to counting recently.

I’ve never been good with numbers as my checkbook and score cards will verify but I discovered that this week at the U.S. Open at Bethpage I am covering my 50th major championship.

At four majors a year (which won’t be happening), I’m still almost 40 years from catching the Ben Hogan of golf writers but, still, 50 is a nice round number.

I should at this point say something nice about editors whom I’ve convinced to keep sending to places most people dream of going on their vacations.

Augusta (28 times). Pebble Beach. St. Andrews. Pinehurst. Shinnecock Hills.

(Note to editors: Want a Bethpage visor?)

Okay, I did cover a PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham one August years ago but it’s the price one pays.

I’ve covered majors won by Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson and that Tiger Woods fellow.

I’ve also covered majors won by Wayne Grady, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel.

That’s golf.

Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, Larry Mize chips in to beat Greg Norman.

The first major championship I ever covered was the 1979 Masters when Ed Sneed bogeyed the last three holes and Fuzzy Zoeller won on his – and my – first trip to Augusta National.

I’m guessing Sneed doesn’t remember it as fondly as I do.

I saw Arnie play his final Masters – a couple of times. I also saw Nicklaus play his final Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

As fate would have it, I found a spot directly behind the tee on the 17th hole at St. Andrews – the famous Road Hole – when Nicklaus was playing the last two holes of his major championship career.

Waiting to hit his tee shot, Nicklaus walked back to the water cooler where I was standing, smiled and nodded hello. Maybe he could have said something in that moment. I couldn’t.

I saw Tiger change golf forever when he won the 1997 Masters and I saw him destroy the U.S. Open record book in 2000 at Pebble Beach when he won by 15 strokes – and had a triple bogey.

I remember the queasy feeling of watching Norman squander a six-shot lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters and the muted celebration when Faldo won a tournament the Shark lost.

I’ve seen Tiger win at Augusta, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews among other places.

So, of the 50 majors I’ve covered (I’ve been to a handful of others but not in a working capacity), which are my five favorites?

These are:
5. 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach

Just being at Pebble Beach makes almost any top-five list but watching Tiger shatter the U.S. Open scoring record in what may be the best 72-hole performance ever made it spectacular.

And, oh yeah, Nicklaus owned the place for the first two days, playing his final U.S. Open.

4. 2005 British Open at St. Andrews

Few places live up to our expectations and it seemed there was no way St. Andrews could match what I wanted it to be. It didn’t. It was even better.

While Nicklaus was playing his final Open Championship, Tiger was winning the claret jug in the coolest place in golf.

3. 1997 Masters

The things I’ll remember about that Sunday when Tiger changed everything:
-- Seeing dozens of Augusta National staff members come out to watch him tee off on the first hole;

-- Lee Elder, the first African-American to play in the Masters, standing under the big tree behind the clubhouse watching;

-- And, the feeling that golf would never be quite the same.

2. 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst

I admit to a special fondness for Pinehurst and to see the U.S. Open finally played there just
felt right.

Everything worked that week and Sunday was as good as it gets – Vijay, Tiger, Phil and Payne Stewart giving us something to remember him by.

1. 1986 Masters

You know it by heart – Jack birdies 9, 10 and 11. Bogeys 12. Birdies 13. Asks son Jack II how far a three would go at No. 15 then makes one. Nearly aces 16. Holes the clincher at 17 as Verne Lundquist says, “Yes sir!” Jack hugs Jack II when they finish.

Seve chokes. Tom Kite can’t finish. Neither can Greg Norman.

Even now, when the video from the ’86 Masters is on TV, I stop and watch at least a little bit.
Just like when I come across ‘The Godfather.’

It’s impossible to resist.

Who knows, maybe No. 50 will be change my list. Tiger's here. So's Phil. You may have heard.