Returning to the scene of one of golf’s oddest episodes: Phil, Winged Foot, 2006
Winged Foot was quiet last week, when it should have been busy. Stately, as it always is. But still. The parking lots had many more empty spaces than filled ones. There were only a few people on the practice tee. The clubhouse was closed and the pro shop was empty. The postponed U.S. Open.
The 120th playing of our national championship was supposed to conclude on Father’s Day. Gary Woodland would have defended his title, or not. Phil Mickelson, newly 50, would have added some kind of new ending to his Winged Foot history.
The other day (Thursday morning, if you’re keeping score at home), a foursome gathered on the 18th tee of Winged Foot’s West Course, where the Open was last held in 2006. No clubs, one video camera, two members, two visitors. One of the members was Mark Loomis, a former junior champ at Winged Foot, a former and occasional caddie there, the executive producer of the USGA telecasts for Fox Sports. Beside him was Rory Fugazy, a GOLF.com producer and a third generation Winged Foot member. Beside Rory was Esley Tate, a GOLF.com videographer, camera in hand. I filled the group out.
We were gathered there that day to revisit one of the oddest episodes in golf history: Phil’s play of 18, a 460-yard par-4 (in other words, short) on Father’s Day in 2006. Watching from on high were Bob Jones (winner of the ’29 Open at Winged Foot) and Billy Casper (winner there in ’59). On Father’s Day in 1984, the year Fuzzy Zoeller won the Open at Winged Foot, Loomis was as close to the action as anybody, a lanky high school kid carrying the scoreboard totals of Hale Irwin and Fuzzy. He was the standard-bearer for the final twosome.
In 2006, Phil, in the final twosome, needed a Father’s Day par on 18 to win. (He was already the father of three and a three-time winner of the handsome coin the USGA gives to U.S. Open second-place finishers.) A bogey would have meant a two-man 18-hole Monday playoff. Loomis was nearby, watching from home, on that Sunday afternoon. He was a producer for ABC Sports then. The U.S. Open was an NBC show in those days.
On Rory’s iPad was NBC’s footage of how it all unfolded. Steve Rabideau, the Winged Foot superintendent, came by in a cart. He oversaw the Gil Hanse restoration work of the two Winged Foot courses in recent years. He turned his gaze here and there and took in a course that was in prime shape for a U.S. Open. The only things missing were the players, the fans, the hospitality tents, an inch or two of rough. The morning was still and there was still a hint of cool in the air. Rabideau was wondering what mid-September’s weather would be. You can get hurricanes in suburban New York in September. You can also get spectacular dry, warm cloudless crisp days when you can’t drink too much water.
Loomis stood on the tee where Phil stood in 2006 and watched the clip. It’s a golfing nightmare. It’s like watching a freight train slowly derail. Johnny Miller is in the NBC booth, alongside Dan Hicks, who is also a Winged Foot member. (Jim Nantz is a Winged Foot member, too.) In the clip, Phil, is wearing brown pants and a yellow shirt, an Arnold combo, at least now and again. Phil teed it up from the far left side of tee box. “This better be a 4-wood,” Miller says. Miller, the 1983 U.S. Open winner, was made for this moment. It’s not a 4-wood.
Loomis has his own take on the club selection: It’s rational. The one place you can’t go off the tee on 18 is left. You can make par from the right rough. You can make par from a fairway bunker 290 yards out on the right side of the hole. But left is a disaster. For a left-handed golfer who liked to hit hard, fade drivers, Loomis explained, you aim at the right bunker and hit it with some oomph. It’s not asking too much.
Loomis watched the clip. Phil appears to be taking something off the driver. The ball goes crazily left. It bounds off a hospitality tent roof. Suddenly, there’s Mike Davis, now the USGA’s CEO, doing emergency crowd control. Loomis looked like he still couldn’t believe it. It’s like watching The Godfather for the 10th time. You know Sonny’s gonna get it, but it’s still a shocker when he does.
Now Loomis was striding down the fairway, Esley beside him, recording. Loomis had made that walk a thousand or more times. He figured out where Phil’s ball came to rest and the bad luck he had in drawing a clean lie. Had Phil’s ball settled in the lush rough in which Loomis is standing, he would have had no choice but to pitch out his second shot and hit a wedge from there. He likely would have had a putt to win on the green, and a second putt to tie. But the lie was clean and Phil is Phil and the shot he was attempting was borderline insane.
We watched and listened and that nuttiness of it all washed over us again. That’s OK. We were getting it all, why Phil is Phil, why Johnny is Johnny, why the U.S. Open is the U.S. Open.
As the wild scene unfolded in 2006, I was in the men’s locker room, a few feet away from Geoff Ogilvy, as Phil played his final three shots on 18. Ogilvy was watching on a small TV and I had the sense he almost didn’t understand what was happening. He was not alone. Phil’s chip for bogey and a fifth round went racing past the hole. He did well to make the next one, Loomis noted. Ogilvy fell into his wife Juli’s arms. He had just become the second Australian to win the U.S. Open, after David Graham.
Sometime later, Ogilvy and Phil’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, became neighbors in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mackay is now an on-course reporter for NBC Sports. Miller is retired and living near Pebble Beach. Phil remains Phil.
Loomis remembered Mickelson’s candor with reporters as the dust was still settling, how Phil showed up at the awards ceremony, how he sent a letter to the club, thanking the members for their hospitality. Fourteen years ago. Seems like yesterday.
I became a father in 1992 and Father’s Day has been a work day for me ever since. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but this year was different. Mark Loomis was off on Father’s Day, too. His home game is 11 weeks away.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com