I was in the area and not doing much yesterday so I thought I'd watch Tiger, Phil and Adam tee it up in the US Open...reckoned it might be fairly good. I was wrong, it was flipping incredible!! Crowds flooded over to the 10th hole to get into position for this battle of the giants and the hole was completely surrounded with a blanket of eager fans. This is what most people had paid their money to see: sporting icon Tiger and all-American hero Phil go hard at it in the heat of a major.
Tiger looked all business from the start and had an air of steely and quiet determination we all know so well. Phil and Adam looked far more relaxed and it didn't take long before they were smiling away and cracking the odd joke to each other and their caddies. Tiger three putted his first hole and clearly wasn't a happy bunny, dropping the F-bomb and a baseball style spit. Not the best start all round for the big man. I almost bumped into his wife, Elin behind the green and was looking forward to noticing her reactions during the round but alas, she was never to be seen again. Maybe she just shows her face and then goes shopping or looks after the little fella, who knows?!
As their round got going, the galleries got deeper and louder and the media circus grew! On the par three 11th hole, people were even climbing the pines to get a view. The banks of photographers, marshalls, scorers, commentators and journalists made it very difficult and clearly frustrating for the loyal, paying fans to get a good view and I felt for them the whole way round. But Tiger and Phil are big, big news and everybody wants to be there in the best spot to watch it unfold, including little old me! I tried as hard as I could to stay out of the way and stood behind trees, in front of the camera towers and grandstands whenever possible, but so many media were there, it was impossible for the majority to stay out of the crowd's way. This caused a real fuss and plenty of insults and funny comments all the way round. Amongst the regular "You're the man Tiger!" "Go Phil!" shouts, there were some sarcastic "Go photographers!" "Yeah, the media, woo hoo!" along the way which eased the tension away from the "Get out of the f*%#'g way!" brigade. The whole week has been so funny listening to the daft and inane shouts but it does add to the atmosphere even if a lot of it is beyond stupid. The crowds have been incredibly well behaved though and as soon as the players are ready to take their shots, you can hear a pin drop...followed by the crack of club on ball and an explosion of noise. It was something very special to be a part of and makes your average European tour event seem like a wake. Tiger chomped on an apple down their 3rd hole and lobbed the core in front of me into the tangly rough. A few of the crowd looked as though he'd chucked a Rolex watch their way...I mean, how much would Tiger's mouldy apple core really fetch on eBay, did I miss a trick?!
The round suddenly changed and Tiger slipped into a different gear. With Phil lagging behind with his three-wood strategy off the tee, Tiger pounded an absolutely majestic sky high fairway wood to 10 feet on the 613 yard 13th hole and then calmly stroked it home for a typical eagle and fist hammer to send us all loopy. I did notice that Tiger was nursing his poorly knee, walking very carefully and more slowly than the other two but it didn't seem to affect his swing and his rhythm looked great. In fact he told us as much in his post round interview and we all know that sometimes when you're not feeling your best, you turn down the power a bit, time it a bit better and hit nice shots. Beware the injured golfer does apply at times and it certainly seems to be the case even following another untimely op for the world's number one.
The wheels came off a bit over the rest of their front nine and all three players were in danger of slipping out of it a few shots over par and the slowed pace of play seemed to bother them. It really wasn't quick out there and although I wasn't in any hurry for it to end, its not a good thing to see five and a half hour rounds when there's no reason for it to be so slow. Players rarely lose balls or have to go back to the tee and they all play so well, they could get round in about four hours if they had to. But they don't have to because there's no enforcement. Despite the so-called strict USGA rules, when was the last time you heard of any player getting docked shots in the US Open? You didn't! The guys are actually pretty speedy down the fairways and hitting shots, but on and around the green is where it goes into slow-mo. This is the money end of the game and where the fine differences in scoring really show. As Justin Rose told us after missing the cut, he couldn't believe he was so far behind his playing partners Els and Ogilvy as he hit the ball just as well, but he hated the greens and couldn't putt. I saw him and he's wasn't kidding. The game within a game is even more important than I realised, and I did already know!
When it comes to short game magic, believe me there is nobody better than Phil Mickelson. I've seen it countless times on TV but never up close before and I can assure you that he is 10 times better than you think. The guy is a complete chipping freak of nature! I've never seen such incredible touch, confidence and control from downright impossible lies. It's no wonder that even the other players marvel at his short game prowess. On the 15th hole he flew it over the green into a grandstand and had to drop in the zone. I was right there and it fell into the deep, long rough never to be seen. He was gutted as he had zero green to work with a slick downslope behind the flag but he popped that thing high out on a cloud as if it had been sitting up on lush fairway. You had to see it and hear it to believe it. He did it another couple of times during the round and respect is due to a true genius with a lob wedge.
After a quick refuel I chased them back out and sadly missed one of Tiger's finest iron shots and one which kickstarted a memorable back nine. He fizzed one off the cartpath to 12 feet and made birdie which began a ridiculously good streak and blew his playing partners away, along with the rest of us watching. He birdied his 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th holes and had a run of six threes on the card which just isn't supposed to happen in a US Open! Mickelson must have been shellshocked, having been three shots ahead he was suddenly four behind. So it was a real surprise to see them walking down the 15th fairway together and chatting for the first time that day. They are both huge sports fans and I'd lay a pretty confident bet that they were talking about an incredible NBA play-off comeback by the Boston Celtics against Tiger's team the LA Lakers the previous night.
While the focus was naturally on the top two, Adam Scott is still a popular guy too, especially with the female fans and he takes the tongue in cheek "We're here to watch you Adam!" type comments in great spirit. He's a very, very impressive player and was usually sneaking it past Tiger off the tee. I'm amazed he has such a poor record in majors and four top tens in almost 30 efforts is way below what it should be.
The par three 8th, their penultimate hole was the most excitement I've witnessed on a golf course, ever! I was directly behind the hole and watched Tiger with the honour, cut a mid iron onto the tiny top shelf to 15 feet to send the crowd nuts. Phil then stepped up and knocked an even better one to 6 feet and everyone went crazier. Not to be outdone, Adam Scott sent a bullet right down the flag, touched the stick and stopped it on the edge of the hole. It was a nailed on hole-in-one that somehow didn't drop and we all went delirious, high fiving each other and shaking our heads in disbelief. That was the world's top three right there, putting on a memorable show.
Down their last hole, another 612 yard monster par five, Phil's decision to sack his driver cost him again. Forcing his three wood he found trouble and wound up taking a demoralising bogey. With Tiger finishing in style with another birdie, the two shot swing left him six shots behind after beginning a shot ahead. Phil, who is usually very open to the media, refused the normal interviews and left the course after what would have felt like a tough beating from his bitter rival.
When the dust briefly settled, we realised just what Tiger had done. With a clearly sore knee, no practice and gradually slipping out of contention he willed up belief, changed gear and let rip a staggering five under par 30 on his back nine to move from nowhere into joint second place. Not only did it match his lowest ever nine holes in a major, it showed us yet again (if ever we needed any more proof) just how unbelievably awesome this man is. Believe me, this is a bloody tough golf course and making numbers like that when he needed to, was a joy to watch. It sets this tournament up perfectly and the crowds will be out in force this weekend to soak it up and cheer him on to another career milestone. He owns this place and no matter how hard I try, I just can't see past him winning now.
Sitting in the interview room with Tiger afterwards was a surreal first-time experience. I would have asked a question but it was a rabbit caught in the headlights moment so I thought better of it! Maybe by Sunday, the thrill of being close to Tiger may have worn off and I'll ask him what he's having for dinner or if he fancies a round at Thorpe Wood in Peterborough next week. Okay, maybe not.
So, what did I learn today? The top players are so good its frightening. I have this daft idea that when I'm playing at my best, maybe, just maybe I could compete. Dream on Rambo...they hit the ball like missiles and strike it perfectly almost every time. They are awesome around the greens and putt unbelievably well on slick, sloping greens we would be making absolute clowns of ourselves on. American galleries are total fruitloops but entertaining in the main and fun to be around. US Open rough is deeply unpleasant and I'd rather chop a toe off than try to hit shots out of it. But Tour Pros don't hit it offline that often so a lot of it may as well not be there! Normal golfers who spray it around a bit would be racking up daft scores here and watching golf over the last two days has hammered home to me very hard just how important it is to hit it straight and putt well. End of!
Hope this gives you a little flavour of what it's like to cover the marquee group at the US Open. I get to do some pretty cool stuff in this job but that was something special and it was a real privelege to be so close to the players and watch their reactions, mannerisms and how they approach every shot. It's been a thrill, but even better could be still to come.