7 Up! At Bethpage Black

The People’s Open. That’s what they called it. Seven years ago, for the first time in its history, the United States Open Golf Championship was played on a public course in New York, and I was there. Well, sort of. I was in New York City playing tourist, standing under Empire State Building, wandering blissfully through Central Park and paying my respects at Ground Zero, a place that was still fresh in people’s minds less than 12 months after that fateful day in September. My friends and I were staying just over the border in Stamford, Connecticut and riding the train to Grand Central everyday. On those train rides in and out of town we encountered golf fans heading to or coming from Bethpage State Park where the U.S Open was being played. Regular golf fans, commuting to watch one of the biggest golf tournaments in the world. The people’s open, on a course they themselves could play for $45. We had to settle for watching it on TV at the TGI Friday’s in Times Square.

It was bold gamble by the USGA, an organisation not known for boldness or gambling for that matter, unless of course you consider preparing a U.S Open course for play gambling, and many would. But it payed off big time. Seven years on and the U.S Open is back at Bethpage Black and the main players from that first Bethpage Open are back as well. A lot has happened in seven years. Back then we had a Republican government in this country, a strong economy, dot.com bubbles bursting and Enron scandals filled the newspapers. We were engaged in a confusing war in the middle east and the Los Angeles Lakers were dominating basketball. I guess some things don’t change. But much has changed in the world of golf and a look back at the 2002 U.S Open reveals just that.

In 2002 Tiger Woods was the number one player in the world. Not much has changed in that respect. For over a decade the man has been the dominate force in the golf world, a tornado whipping its way mercilessly through major after major, leaving nothing but scattered opponents and broken records in its wake. Back then, at the first Bethpage Open, Tiger was on a run unprecedented in golf history. His wire-to-wire three shot win at Bethpage Black marked the 7th major he had picked off in the last 11 events. A year earlier at the Masters, Woods held all four majors at the same time, something not done before or since, even by himself. If it wasn’t for getting caught in some of the worst weather in British Open history a month later at Muirfield, weather which led to a third round 81, Woods may have won three majors in a row and have been on track for the 2002 Grand Slam. He was that close to perfection. Today Tiger is a far different animal than he was back then. He is married for one, and a father of two for another. He is a business man approaching a reported billion dollar lifetime earnings, a noted philranropist and a Presidential friend. He has grown as a person in size and stature before our eyes over the past seven years. A Tiger under a microscope. On top of that, as woods steps onto the first tee of the Black this year he is the holder of 14 career major championships. The hunting season for Golden Bears seems to get shorter every year. Between 1997 and 2002, a span of six years and 24 major championships, Woods won eight times. Between 2003 and the 2009 U.S Open, a span of seven years and 23 majors played, Woods has won six times. He has slowed down, but not by much. Jack Nicklaus was asked a few weeks at the Memorial what stretch in his career he though he played his best golf. “Between the ages of 33 and 38.” was his reply. Woods will be 34 in December.

It may have been the “aww, shucks” attitude, the easy smile, or the way he high-fived the fans on the walk between every green and tee, but whatever it was, at the 2002 U.S Open Championship Phil Mickelson became the people’s champion. The fans rallied behind Mickelson like no player since Arnold Palmer, cheering his every step, wave, grin and putt made. In the end it wasn’t enough, as Mickelson would finish three shots behind Woods and rack up his second runner-up finish at the U.S Open. But there can be no doubt the 2002 U.S Open was Phil Mickelson’s coming out party. Before 2002 he was one of the top players in the world without a doubt. He was on the cusp of greatness, but he wasn’t loved. The fans didn’t realise, but it was Tiger who grew up on public dust bowl courses in Southern California, military base tracks he would play over and over with his father, Earl. Phil, on the other hand, had his pilot father build a putting green for him in the family back yard. As a teen he was Tiger before there was a Tiger. Winning a professional event before he left Arizona State. He seemed destined to marry the prettiest cheerleader in the squad- and he did. But fame and fortune don’t win you majors and that’s what seemed to endure Mickelson to the Bethpage fans- the man with everything had somehow become the ultimate underdog, and people loved him for it.

Fast forward to today and Mickelson, like Woods, has grown as a player and a person. The consensus number two in the world, Mickelson has won his majors, three of them in fact, and has as many children to go along with those trophies. But the prettiest cheerleader is not doing so well. Amy Mickelson was diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month ago. Mickelson has already announced he will more than likely not play in the British Open next month, so his return to Bethpage Black is sure to insight a frenzy of crowd support maybe never before seen in the sport. In 2002 he became the average golf fan’s favourite player, in 2009 he may well be the entire world’s sentimental favourite.

The final player in the saga that was the 2002 U.S Open, the man who played with Tiger Woods on Sunday, is Sergio Garcia. While Mickelson was the gallery’s Cinderella, Garcia played the ugly step-sister. The never-compromising New York fans didn’t take kindly to Garcia’s constant re-gripping of the club, a pre-shot spasm that, at the time, was almost at its cringe-inducing best. Sports Illustrated called the crowd “blessedly unruly”, and clips of a flat-topped, beer-bellied fan urging Garcia to “Hit the ball!” appeared on highlight reels across the world. They were the best and worst of golf fans and Sergio Garcia, the wunder-kid from Spain, felt the rough end of the New York shtick. In 2002 Garcia was a 21 year-old star in the making. A 3-time PGA Tour winner, he was the heir-apparent to Tiger, the man most likely to challenge him in years to come. His 4th place finish that year at Bethpage appeared but a stepping stone in the path to greatness, a greatness that would be defined by majors and major wins. But the years have come and gone, as have the majors, and Sergio is still putting up a bagel in the wins category. Duel heart-breaking losses to Irishman Padraig Harrington over the past two seasons have turned Garcia from the matador into the bull. The 2008 Players, the biggest win of his career, has cemented his reputation as the consensus “best player never to have won a major”, the perpetual money on his back. He has dated former world number one tennis stars and a former world number one golfers’ daughter, but like the majors, can’t seem to hold onto one. The good news for Garcia is he is still young, not turning thirty until early next year. When Phil Mickelson came to Bethpage Black in 2002 he was 32 and major-less. Garcia can take solace in that fact. When Mickelson eventually won his first major, the 2004 Masters, he spoke about getting that monkey off his back. “It felt more like a gorilla.” he said. Weather the Bethpage fans embrace Garcia and his gorilla is anybody’s guess.

Woods, Mickelson and Garcia have all grown since the last time the U.S Open swung through Bethpage Black. They have grown from kids to men, from bachelors to fathers, from also-rans to major championship winners. In 1964 British documentary director Michael Apted and associates Paul Almond and Gordon McDougall started a social experiment where they took 14 children from different socio-economic backgrounds and filmed them talking about their lives. Apted has returned and filmed the lives of these 14 children every seven years since 1964 calling the series 7 Up! The next installment, 56 Up!, is expected to be out in 2011 on the BBC. The idea behind the series, one of the most important in documentary film-making history, is to show the development of the children as they grow and their lives and ambitions change. The 2016 U.S Open site has yet to be announced, but by that time Woods will be 40, Mickelson 45 and Garcia 36. One can only imagine the change those years will bring. One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be fun to watch.

3 Responses to “7 Up! At Bethpage Black”

  1. Mark says:


    If you like, I’d like to write a few articles for your web site. Check out my site and let me know if this would work for you.

    I’ve been following you for awhile and enjoy your stuff.

    Take care…………………..Mark

  2. Nick says:

    If you had read it you would discover the 7 Up reference is to a documentary and the title would make sense. Or maybe not. Either way, you would have to get through all 1582 words to find out.

  3. Gillette Silver says:

    Trying to read 1582 words is like playing golf in the rain, it takes a very special round to be any fun. Is there a chance you could knock this down to 140 characters and twitter the vital content?

    Please don’t tell me there is an Uncola reference somewhere up there.


    John Kavanaugh

Leave a Reply