Author Archives: Lawrence Donegan
Ping-pong tables are popping up on every corner and there is no bigger advocate for the game than Hollywood star and radical Susan Sarandon. Lawrence Donegan faces her across the table
• Watch Ping Pong, a documentary about the sport, on this site
The hardest thing about playing ping pong against Susan Sarandon is playing against Susan Sarandon. It’s distracting to look across the table and see your defensive block being swiped at by a Hollywood icon, a woman who by the compartmentalised standards of modern celebrity life has “done it all” – actor, activist, lover, mother, model, feminist, fearless campaigner on behalf of the dispossessed, easy target for America’s right-wing bullies.
Alas, Sarandon was marked absent when the gods handed out the gift of hand-eye co-ordination. It would be fair to say she misses as many shots as she hits. In her defence she is wearing a royal-blue trouser suit, high-collared white shirt and studded winklepickers, the kind of outfit Jerry Lee Lewis might have taken to the stage in. She is not dressed for bouncing around in pursuit of a ping-pong ball. But let us not pretend these sartorial constraints mask a potential Olympic champion. “I’m not a competitive person, so I’m not one of those people who gets hooked on something and plays it constantly,” she says. “So I’m just not very good.”
Sarandon laughs as she makes this confession. In fact, she laughs at a lot of things, which rather gives the lie to those who would dismiss her as a leftie sourpuss, the Queen Mother of Hollywood’s liberal elite. To be dismissed as po-faced and shrill by misogynists is the fate of many strong, opinionated women in show business (Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda), but in Sarandon’s case the caricature is beyond unfair. She wants to change the world. But spend time in her company and it’s clear she also wants to have fun.
All of which brings us to the rather startling news that Susan Sarandon is now the most famous ping-pong player in America.
This surreal designation has been bestowed by virtue of her part-ownership in a chain of bars which started with SPiN New York, a basement joint in midtown Manhattan that opened in 2009. “I was doing Exit the King on Broadway with Geoffrey Rush at the time. I had some movies coming out as well, and I would be doing interviews and at the end of the chat people would ask: ‘So what’s up next?’ I would say: ‘Well, we have this ping-pong bar that’s going to open.’ All of a sudden that’s all people wanted to talk about, I guess because it is the most unexpected pairing of a person and a sport.”
SPiN has since opened up in Milwaukee, Toronto and Los Angeles. Expansion, even on this modest scale, ranks as an achievement in an austere economic climate, and Sarandon can take a lot of the credit. She is SPiN’s pitch person, a breathless, and obviously sincere, proselytiser for one of the sporting world’s most frivolous pursuits.
Ask her to explain this late-career diversion and she’ll pitch you the movie rights. “Ping pong cuts across all body types and gender – everything, really – because little girls can beat big muscley guys. You don’t get hurt; it is not expensive; it is really good for your mind. It is one of the few sports that you can play until you die.”
Today she has travelled from her home in New York to Los Angeles – a city for which she has little love – for the opening night of SPiN’s newest outpost, at the Standard Hotel in downtown LA. There are meetings to attend and a party to host. There is noise, there is dust. It’s a scene. Some people in Hollywood might think all of this is a little beneath an Oscar winner, but then they don’t have Sarandon’s talent for self-deprecation or sense of perspective. “Is it all ironic, this ping-pong life of mine?” she says. “I wish it was. I love irony.”
Such absence of ego has killed many an acting career, but not Sarandon’s. At 66, and 40 years after appearing in her first film, Joe (1970), she has never been busier, with half-a-dozen films either just released, in production or on the cusp of release, including (not coincidentally) Ping-Pong Summer – a Karate Kid with paddles, apparently. She has two films about to be released in the UK: Cloud Atlas and Arbitrage. Meanwhile, every few months she is garlanded with a lifetime achievement award in some corner of the independent film festival world. “It’s hard to take any kind of acclaim seriously, because you know there are great woman actors out there who can’t get good parts,” she says, brushing aside the subject of longevity. “I know that I am talented and smart and funny. I have a lot of things going for me, but I’m not that extraordinary. I have no idea how or why I have been allowed to keep doing what I’m doing.”
But she’s never been busier, right? “I get offered a lot of supporting parts these days, the kind of thing where I’m only away for two or three weeks rather than two or three months – the parts I was offered when my kids were younger and I didn’t want to be away for such a long time.”
There is a pattern to such deflections, a clear sense that after 40 years in the business she has had just about enough of talking about her acting career. She would much rather talk about other people, such as the school teacher from North Carolina who sent her a letter about a pupil suffering problems with migraines. “By playing ping pong with him for 15 minutes every day, not only did his migraines go away he became less stressed and more social,” she says. “So we sent her a ping-pong table. The next thing she knew she had 25 kids begging to play ping pong.”
The cynics will be rolling their eyes at this point. Sarandon has that effect on some people, usually the sinister Dick Cheney acolytes who fill the airwaves of Fox News, belching their malcontent about the world in general and “Hollywood liberals” in particular. She can’t do anything to please such people and it would be fair to say she has never tried. Instead she just does her thing.
Recently she and SPiN established a programme in New York which supplies ping-pong tables to schools in underprivileged parts of the city. School districts agreed to provide coaching. A league has been established. Sarandon donated $95,000 of her own money to help fund the whole thing. “It’s so much fun to be able to give ping-pong tables and instruction to kids in schools – most of them are black – that don’t have gymnasiums,” she says.
Hearing Sarandon proselytise in this way, and reading into her history of backing her political enthusiasms with money, you have to wonder if she is in some way addicted to “do-gooding”.
She doesn’t take offence at this notion. “Well, I am one of nine kids, and not all of them are like me. Even as a kid I had a need for justice. Also, I just find I am so close to the dark side– I could so easily be depressed or have a hard life. I am so sensitive. Even here [at the Standard Hotel] I see all the homeless people on the street around this hotel and it affects me. The only way to combat those feelings is to do something. When you do something – this is the most hippy thing – or in some way be generous or give, you get so much love and generosity back.
“I am such a lucky person to be born into a lower middle-class family and to have had an education and access to information. If I was Madonna, I would be gifting people left, right and centre. Same if I was Oprah. Your money could go so far in so many places. It’s just so much fun to spread it around, although I admit it is a totally selfish thing for me. It saves me from the precipice”
Not always. Ping- pong might be neutral territory, but Sarandon over the years has never knowingly walked away from controversy, some of it potentially career threatening. In 1993 she and her then partner Tim Robbins used the platform given to them as presenters of the Oscar for best film editing to highlight the plight of HIV-positive Haitians being denied entry to the United States. For their troubles they were both banned from future ceremonial duties at Hollywood’s biggest night.
“The actual act of saying anything at all was traumatic, especially for a Catholic girl who was taught to keep the peace and not break the rules. But we both felt we had to say something,” she says with a shrug. “Afterwards, when the shit hit the fan and we were banned, I didn’t care at all. I got all these really racist letters talking about ‘you and your nigger friends’ and I thought: ‘Good – I am glad I said something.’”
She was reunited with the Oscars “family” in 1996, when she won the best actress award for her part in Dead Man Walking. Still, it would be fair to say her role in the family is akin to that of the unembarrassable sibling with an appetite for speaking uncomfortable truths. She doesn’t appear to care what the Hollywood community thinks about her. In return she doesn’t appear to think much of them. “Apparently, I’m supposed to be some sort of ‘downer’.” She rolls her eyes. “But in reality I’m happy and jolly, and so are most of the activists I know, especially in Central and South America. Sister Prejean [the nun she played in Dead Man Walking] doesn’t stop laughing.”
At the 2004 Oscars she asked her fellow stars to wear a “peace” dove badge which campaigners would then be able to auction off with the money raised to be used for medical relief. “Someone said to me: I can’t wear it [the dove] because it will mess up my dress,” she recalls. “There was another gal I know, a very famous person, who pulled out of a fundraiser in New York recently because she couldn’t get money to pay for her hair and make-up people. Who is advising these people?”
For all the mutual antipathy and antagonism, Sarandon has never been ostracised by the film industry – a curiosity, perhaps, given that some people have been run out of town for far less serious crimes than pointing out the shallowness and hypocrisy of Hollywood.
“Around the time of the war in Iraq, the LA Times did a piece about this, and it turns out that the two people they forgave for their lefty views were me and George Clooney. They didn’t forgive Barbra Streisand, but they forgave me, apparently, because the right-wing people in Hollywood thought I was sincere and that I had been saying what I was saying for a very long time,” she says, though the gratitude she feels is modified by a recognition of Hollywood’s colder realities. “As long as your movies make some kind of money they will give you a chance.”
Los Angeles is littered with those who will speak to the truth of that. Outspoken political activism and Hollywood longevity is some kind of conjuring trick for any mainstream actor, one that perhaps only Sean Penn, Clooney, Julie Christie and Sarandon herself in modern times have pulled off. That very select group and her inclusion in it, along with her 1996 Oscar, might once have been judged as the most significant landmarks of her career. Until now.
Type Sarandon’s name into Google and the search engine’s predictive function steers you towards stories about her ping-pong activities – a measurement perhaps of what is now judged as her greatest contribution to modern American culture. She giggles when she hears this. “Does it really? Does it really? Oh, wouldn’t it be hilarious if that turned out to be my legacy, and all I was remembered for was ping pong,” she says, thinking it over for a moment or two. “You know what, I wouldn’t mind if that’s what happened. I wouldn’t mind at all.” ■
• 26-year-old beats McDowell and Thompson by a single shot
• US Open is Simpson’s first major title in just five attempts
There will be those who will argue that the US Open lacked inspiration and drama, that it is was more a battle for survival enlivened only by the sight of the US Golf Association chief executive, Mike Davis, assuming the role of bouncer as an interloper in a union flag hat interrupted the presentation ceremony.
Davis bundled the guilty man away, leaving the stage to the man of the hour, Webb Simpson, whose final-round 68 was good enough to hold off Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson by a single shot. It was the American’s first major championship and it was by any measure a very worthy victory, even if it is unlikely to be embraced by the wider sporting public.
It is hardly Simpson’s fault that he is not a well-known name in the United States – few golfers are except for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – and it certainly is not his fault that the Olympic Club course served up a tournament that did not allow the best in the world to showcase much more than their survival instincts.
In the circumstances Simpson did the best he could and his best was exceptional. To shoot 68 in the third round on Saturday was a great effort in itself but to then shoot a 68 on Sunday, when the conditions and the set up were more difficult and the pressure was at its maximum, was champion stuff indeed. He was a deserved winner in what was only his fifth appearance in a major championship.
“I never really wrapped my mind around the idea of winning,” he said. “This place is so demanding and so all I was really concerned about was keeping the ball in front of me and making pars.”
All of this was obvious from the television pictures beamed from the locker room at the Olympic Club showing Webb and his wife, Dowd, watching the coverage of those still out on the course as they tried to match his four-round score of 281, one over par. It was compelling, watching this young couple staring at the prospect of a life-changing moment.
At least four men had a realistic chance of denying the Simpsons but as quickly as the opportunity arose for the likes of Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington it was squandered; by an overhit approach to the 70th hole in the case of the South African, and by a couple of poor approach shots by Harrington on the final two holes.
In the end it came down to the third-round leaders McDowell and Jim Furyk, both of whom could have forced a play‑off with a birdie on the final hole. It was not to be. Furyk – who had earlier squandered a winning position with a shocking tee shot on the par-five 16th which led to a bogey – hit his approach into a bunker. McDowell rolled his 20ft downhill putt for birdie past the hole. And that was it, bar the rather sheepish grin from Simpson as he realised that another man’s failure had handed him a lifetime’s ambition. He had no need to feel embarrassed. He won fair and square.
As for those who came up short, there was no shortage of disappointment and self-recrimination. Furyk in particular sounded particularly bereft and who could blame him after a day in which he had the tournament seemingly in his control. “I have no one to blame but myself,” he said. “I was tied for the lead, sitting on the 16th tee. I’ve got wedges in my hand, or reachable par fives, on the way in and one birdie wins the tournament. I’m definitely frustrated.”
McDowell was no less disappointed, although he was a little more eager than Furyk to find the positives in what was ultimately a disappointing day. “I will take away a large cheque and am probably very close to locking up my Ryder Cup place, which is more important to me,” he said. “I will take a huge amount of belief away that I can compete on the biggest stage and win. To have the chance to win and come up one short the way I was hitting it even when I wasn’t on top of my game, I believe I can win more major championships. My heartache is not as bad as Jim Furyk’s right now because he had it and couldn’t quite finish the job. It was never really in my grasp but I nearly got there.”
The Northern Irishman’s next tournament is the Irish Open in his hometown of Portrush. After that, it is on to Royal Lytham & St Annes and the Open Championship. “I fancy a run at the Claret Jug, I really do.”
He is not the only one, of course. In this new era of parity, anyone in the world’s top 50 is justified in thinking they can win a major. However, perhaps Lee Westwood has a greater right than anyone to believe he is owed one of the sport’s biggest prizes. It seems the Englishman is a perennial fixture on the leaderboard at major championships and this US Open was no different.
What was different this time was the degree of bad luck that underpinned his demise. After going through the first four holes of the final round in par, Westwood looked to be in championship-winning fettle when he hit his drive on the 5th hole marginally off-line. It sailed into a tree and was never seen again.
“These things happen but you’d rather they didn’t happen in the last round of the US Open, when you’ve got off to a pretty decent start. I was hitting some good shots and that was another good shot,” Westwood said. “You try to forget about it and get on with the job but that little niggle in the back of your head says: ‘Here we go again.’ It takes the wind out of your sails when you have a bit of momentum.”
To his credit he did not entirely slip off the leaderboard and finished in a tie for 10th place at five over par. Indeed, he might have finished higher had his second shot at the par-five 17th dropped in rather than finishing a few inches from the hole. “I don’t how it missed. It looked in all the way,” he said.
Perhaps one week the breaks will fall Westwood’s way and he will get the major his talents and endeavours deserve. Until then, or at least until the Open Championship begins next month, it is time to celebrate Webb Simpson – not the most charismatic of major champions but on this occasion a very worthy one.
â€¢ 26-year-old beats McDowell and Thompson by a single shotâ€¢ US Open is Simpson’s first major title in just five attemptsThere will be those who will argue that the US Open lacked inspiration and drama, that it is was more a battle for survival enli… Continue reading
Woods’s early good work at the Olympic Club that was to signal a glorious return turned to dust on the final day
Call it the lost weekend of Tiger Woods. Two days in San Francisco that were meant to signal the return of golf’s most emblematic figure with a win at the 2012 US Open ended with frustration and ultimately indifference, from the adoring galleries at the Olympic Club and from the man himself.
“I’m definitely still in the ball game. I’m only five back and that’s certainly do-able on this golf course for sure,” the world No4 said on Saturday evening after signing for a five-over-par 75. That dropped him out of the lead, leaving him five shots adrift of the overnight leaders, Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk.
“It’s all about patience. It’s just a few birdies here and there. It’s not like where you have to go out there and shoot 62 or 63. This is a US Open. You just need to hang around. First you need to get off to a good start. Get through the first six. Because anything can happen at the last three holes.”
That was the theory. The reality was altogether different, and more than a little shocking. Teeing off an hour and a half before the leaders, Woods’s hope was that he might stage a charge that would terrify those playing behind him on the golf course. If that happened, all bets would be off.
His ambition lasted all of 40 minutes, the time it took him to butcher – to use the caddies’ vernacular – the opening three holes. His drive at the long opening hole leaked into the rough to the right, from where he could only chop his ball back out on to the fairway.
Three shots later he walked off the green with bogey. That was bad, but worse was to follow at the 2nd, where he hit his approach shot into a bunker beyond the green. Again he failed to get up and down.
Now he was seven shots adrift of the leaders, who were still warming up on the practice range.
Nevertheless hope was not fully extinguished until the par-three 3rd, where Woods left his tee shot short, hit a chip shot through the green and then left his third 25 yards short of the pin. He two-putted for a double-bogey five and with that his chances were gone.
For the record, he bogeyed the 5th and 6th, taking him to a frankly risible six-over par for the round – a performance as astounding as it was unexpected.
This week was meant to mark the great man’s return to centre stage, a renewal of his assault on Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. Instead, it served only to give succour to those who believe Woods will never climb to the top of that particular mountain.
He may have won twice on the PGA Tour this year but, the argument goes, major championships offer an altogether stiffer challenge, both in terms of the course set-up and the mindset of those competing against him.
The inescapable truth is that Woods no longer scares those competing against him, least of all in these major championship settings.
And why would he? After all, he has not won a major since the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Sure, that famous victory earned him the eternal respect of his peers but Northern Ireland’s McDowell and Furyk are professional golfers, hardened competitors with agendas of their own which do not include paying homage to the past deeds of Tiger Woods.
By the time they stepped on to the 1st tee, they held a nine-shot advantage over the former world No1 and knew that the biggest threat to their ambition would come from the likes of the equally experienced Lee Westwood and Ernie Els, both of whom began the day three shots off the lead.
• Woods shares the lead at one under
• Golfers tested by wilfully tricky course
There is golf, there is fun and then there is the 2012 US Open, a pointless and frankly spiteful attempt to humiliate the best golfers in the world. Entertain the public? Showcase skill? Illustrate to the watching world that here is a sport that might be worthy of their sustained interest and participation?
Alas, these appear to be alien concepts in the alternative universe occupied by the United States Golf Association, which chose to stage its annual championship at the distinctly mediocre Olympic Club – do not be fooled by the spectacular television shots of San Francisco Bay, this quirky layout hangs on the side of a hill and is the very definition of overrated – and then set up the course in such a fashion that survival is the primary goal for all involved.
For this we can all thank Rory McIlroy, who had the temerity to win last year’s US Open at Congressional with a record low score of 16 under par. This week marks the USGA’s revenge, its vainglorious run at reclaiming its marketing slogan “golf’s toughest test”. Well, they have succeeded, kicking sand in the face of many, including McIlroy and the world No1, Luke Donald, both of whom departed here on Friday evening despite the cut finally settling at eight over.
As for those brave souls who earned the right to play at the weekend, the slumped shoulders and hollow stares of those exiting the scorer’s area told their own story. Never mind a players’ locker room, the tournament organisers should have gone the whole hog and set up a field hospital instead.
Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, played exceptionally well over the first two days and still could only finish with a two-round total of 141, one over par. A sunny soul with a finely-tuned line in diplomacy, even he had to battle hard to put a shine on what has been a week of attrition. “It’s just tough to have fun out there, I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s just a brutal test,” he said before remembering his Ps and Qs. “The course is firm, but fair. It is what it is. I mean there’s a couple of pins out there that you would look at them [and say] … is it necessary to put this on the side of a slope? But taking that out of the equation, it’s fairly well set up. But like I say, not a lot of fun, not a lot of fun.”
Not to play and certainly not to watch.
After two rounds there were three players were under par: Jim Furyk, David Toms and, to the delight of television executives from Albuquerque to Anchorage, Tiger Woods. All three deserve a medal.
As for taking home the US Open trophy itself, the list of potential winners is long, not least because of the way the course is set up. When conditions are this tough, when great shots are not rewarded as they should be, it is virtually impossible for anyone playing well to separate themselves from the field. Woods is a prime example.
He played beautifully on Thursday in signing for a one-under-par round of 69, and again played well in Friday’s second round, getting round in a level-par 70 shots.
That left the former world No1 tied for the lead with his two fellow Americans – cause for celebration, you would think, for a man who has gone four years without a major championship victory. Yet like McDowell, Woods struggled to muster the kind of enthusiasm you might expect from a man in his position.
“My two best swings I made all week and I end up in just terrible spots,” he said after Friday’s round, citing his approach to the sixth green, which took a strange bounce and ended perched on the edge of a bunker and another into the 17th green, which bounced and then ran off down the slope to the right.
Is it too much to ask that good shots are rewarded? Evidently it is, although the players have nothing to gain by complaining. They have to take their medicine. “This is a different tournament,” said Woods as he contemplated the challenges that lay ahead. “You have to stay patient, got to stay present, and you’re just playing for a lot of pars. You just have to plod along.” Inspired? Captivated? Didn’t think so.
• McIlroy misses cut for fourth time in five tournaments
• Luke Donald shoots improved 72 but damage already done
Golf can be a humbling game, though this is clearly not enough for the masochists who run the US Open. They demand humiliation, complete and in public, and they got it on a Friday of carnage at the Olympic Club in San Francisco which saw the scoring head north and Rory McIlroy head to the airport.
The 23-year-old came here to defend a title he won at Congressional last June and left here with his head bowed, 10-over par for 36 holes. That was more than good enough – or rather, more than bad enough – to comfortably miss the cut. Thank you and good night. That will teach the young upstart for winning this event 12 months ago in a record low score of 16-under par.
Not that the US Golf Association would be so impolite as to say as much in public but McIlroy’s epic effort on the east coast provoked them into serving up a brute on the west coast. The Olympic Club is not an easy proposition at the best of the times but this week is about as amenable as a nest of rattlesnakes. Of the 156 players in the field, only two were under par by mid-afternoon on Friday. Tiger Woods, four holes into his second round, was two under par, while Jim Furyk added a one-under-par 69 to his opening-day 70 to hold the clubhouse lead on one under par.
“I guess you have to realise at the US Open par is a really good score and you’re going to make some bogeys. And when I’m patient when I’m playing well I’ve had some success here,” Furyk, who won the 2003 US Open at Olympia Fields, said after his round. “Mentally you have to be in a good frame of mind, and physically you have to be on top of a lot of areas of your game.”
McIlroy was neither tuned in mentally or comfortable with the physical aspects of his game. His swing has been off for a few weeks now and that is an insurmountable burden on a golf course such as this. In fairness to him, though, most of the damage was done on Thursday when, as one of the afternoon starters, he caught the worst of the conditions. The wind was up and the course was bouncier than the coastal highway that runs past the entrance to this famous San Francisco club. He shot a seven-over-par 77. Given the struggles of many others in the field he still had a chance to make the weekend but his margin of error was slight; too slight, as things turned out.
To his credit he held his game together for most of the second round but when the crunch came, as it did on the 7th and 8th holes – his final two holes of the day – his will cracked. He needed to hole a couple of crucial putts, one on each green, to give himself at least a whisper of making the cut. He holed neither.
“I left myself with a lot of work to do after yesterday’s round, and to be honest overall I don’t feel like I played that badly for the last two days,” he said afterwards. “It’s just such a demanding golf course and just punishes the slightest shot that’s offline or that’s maybe not the right distance or whatever and that’s how I feel. You really have to be so precise out there and if you’re not you are going to get punished.”
The Northern Irishman has now missed the cut in four of his last five tournaments. No doubt the panic merchants are on high alert, though perhaps they should hold off a little longer before declaring McIlroy a golfing basket case. He needs to regroup, refocus and rediscover his appetite for the sport.
The world No1, Luke Donald, is another who might want to examine his approach, if not at “regular” events, which he wins with pleasing regularity, then certainly at the major championships, where he seldom seems to contend.
Not since the US PGA Championship at Medinah in 2006 has the Englishman broken 70 in the first round of a major. On Thursday he signed for a nine-over-par 79. Never mind his chances being over, his week was over.
The second round was a mere formality. On the upside, he did play marginally better but a two-over 72 was nowhere good enough to make the weekend, far less to trouble the leaders.
Donald has earned his No1 ranking but until he wins a major there will be those who doubt his worthiness. “That’s the one part of my golfing résumé in the last few years especially that I need to continually address and continually improve,” he conceded. “But I want to win a major more than any of you guys know. And obviously I’ll continue to try and do that.”
• Woods round in one-under 69, three off early lead
• Michael Thompson takes clubhouse lead with a 66
Trouble lurks on every corner of the Olympic Club course, waiting to shred the dreams of those playing in the US Open and those who would presume to pick a winner in advance. Yet who would bet against Tiger Woods after an opening round that for the most part was straight from the great man’s archive? Vintage indeed.
The former world No1, whose last major championship victory came in this event four years ago, was not flawless over his opening 18 holes but he was poised and in control as he plotted his way around this treacherous stretch of prime Californian real estate in 69 shots.
“I just stuck to my game plan and executed it fairly well,” Woods said. He has won this event three times and he knows the script. The US Open is hardly golf, it is attrition; a test of survival from the first hole to the last. “It was is pretty tough out there and it is only going to get tougher in the afternoon and for the rest of the week.” As if to prove the point, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy – all among the afternoon starters – played the first four holes in a combined six-over par.
Woods’ effort left him on one-under par, three shots behind the early leader Michael Thompson, whose four-under-par 66 was hard to comprehend given the degree of difficulty inherent in this course set-up.
The “toughest test in golf” promise the US Golf Association in the runup to America’s national championship and they cannot be accused of false advertising. Sloping fairway, thick rough, rock hard greens, trees, sharp dog-legs, sidehill lies, a 670-yard hole (the shortest par-seven in golf, as one wag put it) – the list of challenges presented by the Olympic Club is relentless and it proved too much for the likes of the Masters champion Bubba Watson (78, eight-over par) and Zach Johnson, who was fancied by the cognoscenti to do well this week (but shot 77). Poor Andy Zhang, the youngest player in the history of this event at 14 years old, who started his round with a triple bogey, followed by a double bogey. Poor kid but just has the USGA was about to be cited for child endangerment Zhang summoned up unfathomable reserves of skill and perseverance to play the rest of his round in four-over par and finish with a 79. “At least I broke 80,” he said.
Well done, young sir. And well done Thompson. The 27-year-old PGA Tour player is no mug – he was once the No1 ranked amateur in the world and was the leading amateur in his only previous US Open appearance, at Torrey Pines in 2008 – and he proved as much in a round that featured seven birdies. The afternoon wave of players were still waiting to tee off as Thompson headed back to the safety of the clubhouse. What all of them would have given to be in the American’s place.
Yet leading a major brings all kinds of pressures, none of which Thompson has experienced before. Will he be able to stand up to them? History tells us not, though he begged to disagree.
“I know a lot of people don’t know who I am and I am OK with that. I’ve always been a player who just kind of hangs around. I don’t give up easily and I am proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight, I don’t care,” he said. It is safe to say Tiger will gladly take him up on his offer. Over the course of his 14 major championship victories, Woods has proved nothing if not his ability to be comfortable under the spotlight. He has played his best golf from the front, under the maximum pressure.
And he proved it again on Thursday, playing as well as he has done in a major championship since that victory at Torrey Pines in 2008. That year he was paired alongside Phil Mickelson for the first two days – beating him handily – and the two old rivals were thrown together again this year, stepping on to the 9th tee – their first hole of the day – at 7.33am local time.
“The challenge excites me,” the big left-hander said earlier in the week when asked for his thoughts of the USGA’s decision to place the two biggest stars in American golf, along with Watson, in the same group for the first two days of this event. The 9th tee at Olympic is perched below the clubhouse in a natural amphitheatre and a perfect setting for such a gladiatorial contest. The crowd reaction as both players were introduced was set to Ryder Cup volume. Woods responded with a beauty of a drive, straight down the hill and straight down the middle. Mickelson stepped up and hit a ugly hook that headed right of fairway and was never seen again, his ball presumably lodged somewhere in the branches of a tree.
Back to the tee he went and hit another, this time right down the middle. He found the green with his approach and holed the putt for an admirable bogey five, only one shot worse than Woods’ regulation par. But the tone for the round had been set.
Where Woods was controlled and calm, more often than not from middle of the fairway to the middle of the green, Mickelson scurried around like a headless chicken on his way to a six-over-par 76.
It wasn’t good but the truth is it could have been a lot worse for the big left-hander.
The Northern Irishman will want to put up a good show as Phil Mickelson relishes showdown with Tiger Woods at Olympic Club
Rory McIlroy’s preparations for his defence of the US Open took a detour on Tuesday night, away from San Francisco’s Olympic Club and into the city’s spectacular baseball stadium where he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game between the host team, the Giants, and the Houston Astros.
Unlike many baseball ingénues, the Northern Irishman didn’t embarrass himself, lobbing up an effort that found the catcher’s mitt. A cautiously successful approach, in other words – one that might serve him well when the real business of the week begins on Thursday.
For reasons of history and reputation, the cognoscenti of world golf did not arrive in the city by the bay at the start of this week with great hope in their heart. The Olympic Club has held this championship four times previously and on each occasion it has what could be described as a “surprise” winner. In 1955, a club pro from Iowa called Jack Fleck defeated the mighty Ben Hogan in a play-off. Eleven years later, Arnold Palmer was edged out by Billy Casper. A steady PGA Tour player called Scott Simpson birdied three of the last four holes to beat Tom Watson in 1987 and finally, in 1998, Lee Janzen won a final round contest over Payne Stewart that lived long in the memory for the wrong reasons, most notably a course set-up – wrist-breaking rough, brick-hard fairways and “goofy” greens – that reduced this championship to a laughing stock.
“The worst course on the US Open rota – by far,” one of Europe’s best-known golfers confided a few years ago in the privacy of a locker room chat. That view was widely held though it is firmly rooted in that checkered past and not the reality of the present day.
The Olympic Club of 1998 may have been a travesty. The Olympic Club of 2012 is something of a gem, recognisable as the same layout that produced that largely undistinguished list of past winners – Casper, a very fine and successful player over the years, deserves an exemption from all scepticism – but also a course that is transformed. Trees have been removed, fairways widened and the severity of the sloped greens has been toned down. Make no mistake, it is still a brutally difficult test but – crucially – it is also a reasonable one.
“It is a different course to the one we played back in 1998,” said Phil Mickelson on Tuesday. “It is a wonderful test of golf now.”
The American left-hander has many skills, the most endearing of which is his great ability to strike a diplomatic pose while saying exactly what is on his mind. In praising the tournament organisers, the US Golf Association, for its efforts this time round he was also reminding the world of the botch job it made in 1998. There was another subliminal message in what Lefty said and it was that he really fancies his chances this week.
In its wisdom the USGA has grouped Mickelson alongside his great rival Tiger Woods (and Masters champion Bubba Watson) for the opening two rounds. How did he feel about that? “Fabulous,” he replied, instantaneously. “I get excited to play with Tiger. He gets the best out of me. The one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger. And the fact that we are on the same wavelength, I’m always in favour of. Sometimes we’ll get a huge advantage in tee times, based on weather conditions or whatnot, if we’re on the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage.”
Put like that, it makes you wonder why the other 154 players have taken the trouble to come all the way to the Pacific west coast when the narrative of the year’s second major has already been set. Forget the Stone Roses reunion tour and get ready for the Tiger and Phil Show (Redux).
Of course, American television and the Californian galleries would love that. And maybe it will come to pass. Woods has won twice on the PGA Tour this year, most impressively at the Memorial Tournament a couple of weeks ago, and will surely contend this week on a course that will suit the “baby cut” shot that has become the staple of his game.
However, the difference between the past and the present is that the best of Tiger and Phil might no longer be good enough to prevail over a generation of golfers who are no longer cowed in their presence, McIlroy being the most obvious.
The Northern Irishman came close to winning in Memphis on Sunday before duck-hooking his drive on the final hole into the water – a horrible shot that cost him the tournament and hinted the flaws that have crept into his swing in recent weeks have not been entirely obliterated by a more intense work regime.
Still, pride is a formidable asset and as the reigning champion McIlroy will want to put up a good show. So too will the likes of Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy and Matt Kuchar, all solid performers whose strengths – reliable ball-striking allied with a great short game – will serve them well on a layout that does not necessarily suit long hitters.
The world No1, Luke Donald,, who surely deserves to win a major, is another who could do well this week, as might Martin Kaymer. The German prefers to shape the ball from left to right and this course has a preponderance of holes that fit such a shape. He will contend, surely, but will he have enough in his armoury to defeat the man for whom the Olympic Club, and the 2012 US Open, might have been set up to accommodate?
Lee Westwood has the perfect ball flight for this course. He is as accurate as anyone when it comes to approach greens – a huge asset when the greens are as small as they are here – and he is as strong willed as they came. He has flaws, particularly when it comes to chipping. But when the rough around the greens is this thick, the premium on a short game is reduced. It becomes less a test of skill and more a test of endurance. Westwood is not short of that underrated quality.
In other words the Englishman, who has been standing on the cusp of major championship success for far too long now, will never have a better chance to break his duck. All he needs is a modicum of luck, a putting stroke that will last him through the long week and a bucketload of self-belief. Two out of three and he will be in there at the end. Three out of three and the 2012 US Open is his.
The China-born teenager, at 14, will become the youngest player in the history of the US Open
The surest sign that the youth movement is gathering an unstoppable momentum is to be found on the red tag that hangs on Andy Zhang’s golf bag giving the year of his expected high school graduation: 2016.
By then the China-born teenager, who moved to Orlando, Florida to attend to the David Leadbetter golf academy, will hopefully have reached the required standard in the schools curriculum. In the meantime he will have to content himself with being a golfing sensation – at 14 years old, the youngest player in history of the US Open and the youngest player to play in a major championship since “Young” Tom Morris teed up at the 1865 Open Championship.
“I will just try to enjoy it as much as possible,” said Zhang after being told he had been drafted into the 156-man field at Olympic Club following Paul Casey’s withdrawal from the tournament on Monday with a shoulder injury. “I want to play well, but just to play on a major championship course is great.”
Zhang was out on the course early on Tuesday morning for a practice round alongside the Masters champion Bubba Watson. He was being out-driven – such is the fate of most people who play alongside Watson – but he did not look over-awed.
The youngster arrived in the US four years ago after being “discovered” in China by Andrew Park, an instructor based at the Leadbetter academy in Florida who had travelled to Asia to scout another prodigy.
“Andy hits it miles and miles. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders. He couldn’t speak any English when he got here, and now we can’t keep him quiet. He is very outgoing,” Park told the website CBSSports, adding that the youngster had been competing in – and had won some – mini-tour events in Florida.
Zhang entered US Open sectional qualifying in Lecanto, Florida, last week, shooting rounds of 70 and 72. That was good enough to get into a play-off which he subsequently lost, although he was then placed on a list of alternatives for this week’s event.
To put Zhang’s achievement in context, Tiger Woods, perhaps the greatest teenage prodigy in the history of golf thus far, pointed out on Tuesday that he had tried to qualify for the US Open at the age of 15 but came up short.
“He went out there and went through both sections, both stages, I’m sorry, and did it. It’s not too young if you can do it. That’s the great thing about this game, it’s not handed to you. You have to go out and put up the numbers and he did.
“He shot the scores he needed to qualify and move on and he did and he’s here playing on the biggest stage. Just think about the experience he’s going to gain playing in this event. How well that’s going to serve him playing junior events and high school events,” Woods said.
Assuming he continues to progress, Zhang is unlikely to turn professional for at least another four years when he graduates from high school. Even then, he might choose to go to a college in the United States, continuing his golfing education in the way that most American-based players have opted to do through the years.
Yet in recent years most of the best players, including Woods, have left college before completing their degree, such are the financial rewards that are on offer for the very best – and such is the fear of being left behind. Standards are being raised all the time, and the competition is becoming more intense, according to Woods.
“The difference is in the technology,” the former world No1 said. “These kids are now bringing out iPads to the range and watching their swing and breaking it down on the V-1 [video analysis software]. Like Hogan said, if he had a video camera the changes would happen so much faster. These kids are now being introduced [to it] when they first start.
“I saw a few of these kids over in Korea who have only been playing the game for a year. And six months of it was all indoors hitting golf balls. All they did was put the club in the correct position to hit balls, hit balls, hit balls, and that’s it.
“They come out and they have perfect golf swings. That’s the new generation. The swings are all going to look very similar, and all these kids are going to have power.”
• Disabled golfer back in triumph 14 years after major row
• Martin beat hierarchy for right to use cart in top tournaments
Casey Martin will not win at the Olympic Club this week and it will come as a surprise if he makes the cut. The former PGA Tour professional does not play competitively these days, though he made an exception when it came to the 2012 US Open.
“I wouldn’t have done it anywhere else… It would be a fun story but don’t hold your breath,” the 40-year-old from Oregon said before teeing off in the final qualifying event for what the US Golf Association likes to call golf’s toughest test. Thirty-six holes at Emerald Valley in Oregon and 138 shots later, Martin secured a spot in the field at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, the venue for his only previous appearance in a major championship and the setting for one of golf’s most controversial moments.
Fourteen years ago, Martin was one of the most famous golfers in America, a great player in his own right who found greater celebrity after suing the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart while competing against the world’s best players. These days he is the coach of the University of Oregon golf team but in his prime was good enough to make the field when the US Open was last played here in San Francisco in 1998.
At one stage in the tournament he found his way on to the leaderboard before dropping back to finish in a tie for 23rd. Given the furore that surrounded his use of a golf cart – it was more of a scooter in reality – during the tournament, his performance could not be described as anything less than sensational.
Martin suffers from circulatory disorder in his right leg that has left him with a pronounced limp and an inability to walk long distances. After a garlanded career in college golf – he played at Stanford University alongside Tiger Woods – he earned his way on to the PGA Tour through the qualifying school only to find his path blocked when officials denied him the right to use a golf cart, arguing it would give him an unfair advantage. He sued and the case went all the way to the supreme court, with many of the sport’s biggest names, including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, testifying on behalf of the PGA Tour.
“I think part of the game of golf, and the tradition and integrity, is being able to walk and compete,” Nicklaus argued in a deposition to the court. Few within the sport sided with Martin, with even the founder of the Association of Disabled American Golfers steering a curiously neutral course. “Casey deserves to have the opportunity to try to make a living,” said the association’s Greg Jones. “At the same time, if he has a cart and it’s 100 degrees and 90% humidity, there certainly is the potential to change the competitive nature of the game.”
In the end the supreme court sided with Martin, ruling in 2001 that he could use his cart. “What it can be said to do, on the other hand, is to allow Martin the chance to qualify for and compete in the athletic events [the PGA Tour] offers to those members of the public who have the skill and desire to enter,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote. In other words, people with a disability have rights, even in professional sport.
The establishment was unrepentant. “Someone else along the line will use this, I promise you,” Nicklaus said. “It will happen. There’ll be another mess some place.”
Nicklaus and the other traditionalists were wrong. No one else has applied to use a cart on the PGA Tour. That is probably just as well, given the logistical difficulties outlined by Martin in a 2008 interview. “The biggest stress wasn’t in the courtroom, or talking to the media, feeling the occasional bad vibe from people, worrying about my leg, or trying to keep my game together. It was dealing with the cart,” he said.
“Inching my way through crowds, looking for a place to get out and duck under the ropes, driving ahead and waiting for the other players to catch up – that was stressful. I found the logistics of riding in that environment to be very difficult, especially when there were 20,000 people out there. I never did find the knack for concentrating or getting into a rhythm and I’m not sure it was even possible. Walking is the best way to play this game.”
Over the intervening years, the majority of those who opposed Martin’s use of the cart, the likes of Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange, have recanted and apologised for their previous views.
As for those who have yet to make their peace, they will get the chance this week. Martin, as ever, is not interested in keeping old enmities alive. He is interested only in playing golf. “I’ll be nervous,” he said of the week ahead. “It’s really hard. I want to be excited but I know when I get on the first tee, it’s going to be difficult.”