Golf’s real Opening Day

Brian Murphy

So, golf fans, there we were, floating along, half-awake, giving somnambulant golf claps to Zach Johnson and Kenny Perry and Pat Perez and Nick Watney and not even bothering to finish at Pebble when – Wham-o!

Just when we didn’t expect it, a golf season hit us in the face.

In the span of 72 hours, Phil Mickelson shot 63 at Riviera, Tiger announced he was coming back, Lefty shot 72 at Riviera, Tiger’s announcement caused we’re-not-worthy reaction, Philly Mick shot 62 at Riviera, Tiger’s return got that much closer, a teenage phenom won in Australia, Tiger’s return got that much closer, then His Left-handedness propped up the big tent and went eagle-five bogeys-birdie 16-birdie 17 and won at Riviera.

Phew! I’m worn out just typing that.

Now, tell me again: Who won at SonyHopeFBRTorreyPebble? I sort of forgot. On account of all that happened in the last few days and all.

Stars make the world go ‘round, and entertain us on rainy February days, which is why the film industry throws a party for itself every year in a self-congratulatory orgy that allows us to see Anne Hathaway and Penelope Cruz look like a million bucks. Same thing with golf: Tiger and Phil divide us all into camps of fans, and unite us all in our love of the game played at the highest level.

Like, for example, do you believe Tiger released news of his return only after he saw Phil posted a 63 at Riviera? And did you wonder if Phil had the stomach to close the deal after those five bogeys from holes 2 through 14? And once Philly the Mick closed it out with birdie-birdie-par on 16-17-18 at Riviera, thus making good on his history of West Coast wins, did you start dreaming of a fantasy Lefty-Tiger showdown at Match Play?

These are the questions that fuel our golf hearth.

We can admit it. We were coasting for the first six weeks of the golf season, half paying attention, half checking the NFL playoffs and wondering when we’d see the Fist Pump again. And then, the rewards came, full force. Nick Faldo wondered aloud if Mickelson was making “one last defiant shout to the world, saying to Tiger, “I’m ready to take you on.’” Lefty spurred all kinds of doubts with his errant work off the tee, and then, just when it looked as if he’d blow the biggest lead of his career, made the kind of shots under pressure he will need in Georgia come April.

We can start thinking that way now. And if feels good.

Scorecard of the week

67-68-69-67 – 271 and 17-under for amateur Danny Lee, first place, European Tour Johnnie Walker Classic, Australia.

In our Amero-centric lives, we so rarely pay heed any form of greatness not grown inside our borders. Padraig Harrington has won the last two majors, and three of the last six, and I recently watched him dine at the Tap Room at Pebble Beach. In a crowded room of avid golf fans, he was as invisible as a busboy. I imagine part of that is due to Harrington’s unfailing modesty; but part of that, I also imagine, is because Harrington isn’t American and thus that much farther down our collective radar.

Which brings us to Danny Lee.

Tiger Woods’ entire life has been a ledger of seemingly indestructible records – six consecutive U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateurs; youngest ever to win the Masters; scoring records in all four majors; et cetera, et cetera, (how much time do you have?). It follows that we should pay attention whenever any player dares break a Tiger Record, but too few of us sat up and took note when Lee, a teenager born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand, broke Tiger’s mark as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion last summer at Pinehurst.

That inattention was bound to end this April when Lee, all of 18 years old, made his Masters debut as U.S. Amateur champion. Now, the inattention should end even sooner after Lee birdied 13, 14, 17 and 18 Down Under to become the youngest winner ever of a European Tour event. Not only did Lee beat back a field that included Anthony Kim (remember him?), Camilo Villegas (missed cut), Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Niclas Fasth, he also stayed amateur after the win, refusing the check to keep his amateur invite to the Masters alive.

And to think, the coveted “Scorecard of the Week” award was all set to go to 17-year-old Ryo (Adrian!) Ishikawa. Prior to Lee’s win, I was homing on Ishikawa, who brought a Michelle Wie-sized press contingent and a suitcase full of outrageous trousers to Riviera before missing the cut. His nickname, “The Bashful Prince,” is pretty strong, but given the pronunciation of his first name, I will go Chris Berman on you all. Helps to remind me that the “R” is silent.

The Masters should be fun, with teenagers Ishikawa and Lee bringing a little born-in-the-'90s feel to the joint. Wonder if the Jonas Brothers will play at the green jacket ceremony.

Broadcast moment of the week

• Life is such a fleeting and mysterious thing, it is with great comfort that we welcome the sights and sounds of the reassuring, those landmarks and benchmarks that remind us of familiar routine and comforts of things on which we can rely.

I speak of things like Opening Day in baseball, Bruce Springsteen shouting “Come on, Stevie!” before Little Steven joins him on the microphone and, of course, golf broadcasters saying the word “kikuyu” at Riviera.

Avid readers of this column know that the ’08 B.M.O.W. (Broadcast Moment of the Week, natch) was the mere sound of Jim Nantz uttering the word “kikuyu.” I am nothing if not consistent. This year’s B.M.O.W. was David Feherty’s “Take Five” on CBS, in which Feherty lent his considerable wit to the concept of the kikuyu at Riviera.

On Oscars Sunday, Feherty nominated kikuyu for “Best Foreign Short Animated Feature” and, holding a particularly nasty patch of Riviera’s finest, said it was “the kind of stuff your Granny could crochet you a bulletproof vest from … absolutely gnarly.”

I give Feherty the Irving G. Thalberg for Lifetime Achievement in Kikuyu Commentary.

Mulligan of the week

• In all my world travels, I’ve yet to meet the human being who doesn’t like Freddie Couples. Most love him, his cool breeze of a gait, his buttery golf swing, his prodigious length off the tee. It’s all so free and easy on the golf course, a place where so many of us strive to feel free and easy.

That’s why Riviera was so much fun on Sunday. Not only did we have Steve Stricker making a Sunday charge, not only did we have the Lefty Carnival in town, but also we had Boom Boom, at age 49 and ½, knocking on the door of victory.

So we’re on 18 on Sunday, great finishing par-4 at Rivvy, and Couples is in the ballgame. He has a 7-iron to the green, and a chance at birdie to get into a playoff.

Only, he absolutely blocks it. It was a fan of the highest order, dead right into a eucalyptus tree, damn near a shank. Nobody on CBS wanted to go the extra mile and drop the “s” word, because who wants to kick Freddie Couples when he’s down?

Afterward, ace golf reporter Doug Ferguson of the AP reported that Couples had learned of the death of his estranged wife from breast cancer this week. In a heartbreaking week, it was a heartbreaking shot on the 72nd hole.

Somebody, get that man a mulligan.

Where do we go from here?

• To Tucson, where the golf world has never been more excited to see Brendan Jones play. That is his name, right?