Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2011

As Easy As One, Two, Three, Four

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is attending the United States Open at Congressional Country Club this week. Accordingly, in lieu of the regular Thursday and Sunday evening publication schedule, posts will be made as events warrant and time allows. The regular posting schedule will resume on Thursday, June 23.

Tuesday at the U.S. Open is the most intensive day of practice. On Monday those players who have opted to play the previous week’s PGA Tour event are still finding their way to the Open’s site. On Wednesday some players choose to rest up, and even those who don’t are more likely by mid-afternoon to be found on the range attending to specific concerns than out on the course. But on Tuesday virtually every one of the 156 contestants for our national championship will walk the fairways of Congressional Country Club’s Blue course.

On this Tuesday, before the day is out I will follow Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, and Aaron Baddeley, among others. But early in the day, not long after my arrival I make my way to the small grandstand behind the green of the par-3 13th hole. I’ve already seen Camilo Villegas and Fred Funk, as well as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Hunter Mahan. The latter three are playing a practice round together, along with journeyman Jeff Overton. They began their round shortly after 7 a.m.; my first encounter with the foursome was right after they made the turn, as they played the 10th. I followed them down the 11th, then skipped ahead to take a seat in the bleachers at #13 and await the progression of the enormously popular Mickelson, the rising star Johnson, the Ryder Cup team member Mahan, the solid Overton, and the thousand or more fans who are trailing along in their wake.

Soon enough I see the snaking lines of fans approaching the 12th green. Shortly thereafter the grandstand in which I am seated rapidly fills; and then suddenly the foursome is on the tee, not quite 200 yards distant.

The U.S. Open is deadly serious business for golfers. It’s a tournament that any American golfer, and no shortage of international players, would dearly love to win. But this is Tuesday, this is just practice. Nothing of lasting import can happen today; certainly nothing that we haven’t all seen before or might talk about later. Or can it?

Overton, unquestionably the fourth member of this foursome, tees his ball. One practice swing, and then the ball is launched. From my vantage point behind the green, it appears headed a bit to the left (Overton’s right) of the flag, which is perched on the front portion of the heart-shaped putting surface. Hanging against the sky, it looks like it may be short, perhaps headed for the bunker fronting the green.

But no, it just clears the bunker and lands on the front fringe. The slope of the land kicks the ball’s first bounce in the direction of the cup. It settles and rolls steadily and unmistakably toward the pin. There is a collective intake of breath; and then a roar as the ball falls in the cup and we leap to our feet. Jeff Overton has scored a hole in one!

There are high-fives all around up on the tee and in the stands. We in the crowd are still abuzz and there are cries of “top that Phil!” as Mickelson launches an iron skyward. The ball lands right beside the hole, but bounds to the back portion of the green. Dustin Johnson is next, with a pretty iron that stops just ten feet below the hole. Finally Hunter Mahan’s tee shot comes up short and in the front bunker.

Now the group comes to the green, and Overton is met with shouts and applause even as he retrieves his ball from the cup and graciously tosses it to a young fan along the rope line. Then in the space of minutes, with the journeyman having scored a one, the statistically improbable becomes an immediate and memorable reality.

Dustin Johnson rolls in his birdie putt for a two. Phil coaxes a slippery sliding putt down the slope to within a yard, and holes the par putt for a three. And yes, Hunter Mahan blasts out of the bunker and onto the green, then two-putts for a four.

The golfers make their way to the 14th tee, focused on their preparations. In the stands we fans look at one another. Strangers to each other moments ago, we are now forever partnered as witnesses to an unlikely scoring superfecta. And to think that it’s only Tuesday morning.

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