Day one of this year’s US Open is in the books and the only prediction that appears at all prophetic in retrospect was Tiger’s statement from his Tuesday press conference wherein he suggested the conversation between he and Phil would be less than scintillating. I wasn’t there, but I imagine there were the obligatory first tee greetings, followed by 18 holes in which both ignored the other—easy since Tiger played the course and Phil played, well, somewhere in California—then the obligatory 18th green handshake during which Tiger suppressed a smirk and Phil looked, for once, genuinely humble.
So, as is typical with hype, the much ballyhooed Tiger/Phil/Bubba grouping didn’t live up to it. The really interesting thing, and what did live up to expectations, was the golf course itself and the fact that this year’s version of the Open resembles those Opens of yesteryear at which par was the goal and disaster threatened on every swing a millisecond before impact. Interesting as well, at least to me, is our first round leader, Michael Thompson, who put three shots between himself and Tiger, et al. with an amazing round of 4 under par 66.
Like me, most of you have probably never heard of Michael Thompson. Here’s the skinny: he earned his card for 2011 by placing 16th at Q School. He’s made steady progress, earning just under a million dollars last year with 2 top 10s and 6 top 25s. So far this year, he has 1 top 10 and 4 top 25s in 15 events and he’s made just over $500,000.00. He’s a fairly consistent cut-maker, as well. In short, it seems this guy is steady and reliable—nothing too flashy—just a guy who goes about his business and earns a very nice living playing golf.
That’s precisely why we haven’t heard of him. He doesn’t have a signature color that he wears on Sunday, although I suspect it may be Khaki. He’s just one of those “very nice” players that flies under the radar in a world populated in abundance by many such golfers but dominated in our media-driven culture by the so-called really big talent.
We might be inclined to dismiss Michael Thompson from further consideration, knowing that historically the US Open often produces the odd “no name” first round leader only to yank him back to reality with a second round number north of 80. Whether that happens today is worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than to see if this kid has the fortitude and game to keep it going, or whether he caught lightening in a bottle via an exceptionally hot putter (22 putts yesterday—crazy good).
But consider this: Michael Thompson is currently ranked 107 in the world. Not bad. Also not bad is that before turning pro in 2008 he was the SEC Player of the Year, was runner up at the US Amateur and was ranked number 1 amateur in the world. That goes to the fact that all these guys on Tour are really, really good. Michael Thompson is unknown only because we don’t pay close attention to the players lurking just below the surface of the extremely deep talent pool that is the PGA Tour. He is good enough to win the US Open. It is being held, not coincidentally, at the course where he placed second in the Amateur, by the way. Whether he holds up under the relentless pressure of only his first professional Major just might make for a compelling story come Sunday.
Speaking of pressure that brings me to what I am proclaiming right now, after only one day of competition, as the round of the tournament. Fourteen year old Andy Zhang shot 79 on a course that humbled and humiliated some of the best players in the world. I don’t know about you, but in the summer of my fourteenth year I won the US Open at least once a week—in my head. I always beat Jack Nicklaus, too, thus depriving him of an historically insurmountable total of 52 Major Championships. Sorry Jack. And even in my imagination, I still choked on occasion, missing that critical 10 footer as the imaginary crowd, which included my imaginary girlfriend, held their breath. Fortunately, I always had the luxury of a “do-over.” I’d simply erase from my mind the just missed putt and do it again.
There were no do-overs for Andy Zhang yesterday. So the fact that this fourteen year old kid managed the rather remarkable feat of breaking 80 is worthy of our praise and admiration. What makes young Andy’s round worthy of the “round of the tournament” is the fact that he began his day by going triple bogey, double bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey.
Let me pause while you do the math…that's right, 8 over through his first 5 holes. He then played the last 13 holes at 1 over par. You want to talk about bounce back statistics? That may be the finest 13 holes I’ve ever heard of. Think for a moment how you would’ve reacted. Yeah--just that image makes you get cold sweats, doesn’t it? I’m quite certain that I would’ve wet my pants, and then begun crying, all the while swearing never to do another bad thing in my life if the Good Lord would just please, please…seriously, please, let me break 100. And I’m 52 years old.
There will be plenty of discussion today about Tiger and the other contenders. That’s to be expected. What was not to be expected is that the toughest competitor on the course this week might be the kid who only recently graduated—from 8th grade. How cool is that?