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OPINION COLUMN: TED KRUCKEL

The U.S. Open Is All About Getting Close to Tiger, and the Sponsors

Little else matters at the giant production that is the U.S. Open. Plus, a reward to anyone who actually finishes the column: party talk with The Real Housewives of New York's countess!

It's a breathtaking view from the first tee at Bethpage State Park, once you get there.

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

It’s just like standing in the square at St. Peter’s. He’s far away, but unmistakable. There’s his little hat. Everyone is oohing and aahing. And taking cell phone pictures, which is so against the rules. While some may think it sacrilege to compare the Pope to Tiger Woods, for this lifelong, reluctant attendee to both houses of worship, it is exactly the same thing.

Everyone is quiet. Well, quiet except that they’re whispering all the time, always whispering the same things. Here are the top ten musings that everyone is murmuring at the 109th U.S. Open, held at Bethpage State Park on Long Island.

1. Tiger Woods is going to win.
2. Tiger won last time at Bethpage, in 2002, the first time ever the U.S. Open was played at Bethpage, the first public course to be so honored. (Tiger came up through the public course system, so this is the People’s Open and he is the People’s Champion, just like Diana was the People’s Princess.)
3. His leg is better.
4. His leg isn’t better, but he’s still going to win.
5. He won last year on a broken leg. Remember?
6. He’s ready.
7. He’s not ready, but he’ll win anyway.
8. Phil Mickelson, the poor guy (his wife has cancer), hasn’t got a chance, but maybe he’ll come in second.
9. Phil told U.S.G.A. writer Stuart Hall, “I putted these greens very well in ’02, and if I have a good putting week, I expect to be in contention on Sunday.”
10. Justin Timberlake might be here.

Can I go home now? No. Because I am a mile and a half away from anything resembling a motor vehicle, except a golf cart, which you need to be a huge V.I.P. to have. Let’s go back in time. How did I get here?

As Memorial Day Weekend unfolded, my friend and colleague Tom Glazer took me for drinks at the Bethpage State Park golf course, just above the impressive (and foreboding) first tee. (If you don’t hit 300 yards, you need to two-shot it before your approach shot, separating mice from men.)

As we drove there, I noticed we passed the Denver International Airport, the one with the massive, pointy, white all-weather tents. Knowing we weren’t in Denver, I asked Tom, “Is that some sort of military/industrial complex?” It reminded me of The X-Files.

“What planet are you on?” Tom indicated, without saying as much. “The U.S. Open is here in two weeks.” I grew up in a golfing family but despite years of lessons, and caddying, I did not catch the disease.

Mr. Glazer’s company, Graphic Image, publishes the U.S.G.A.-approved (that’s United States Golf Association; don’t confuse them with the P.G.A., you heathen) leather-bound (well, actually, French calfskin, not to put too fine a point on it) booklet The Rules of Golf, which also bears the imprimatur of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Scotland, which explains why he had tickets on hand, plus a free copy of the aforementioned supple-to-the-hand rule book.

So off I went to attend the private practice rounds early this week. The tournament began in earnest yesterday morning, although play was suspended after three hours due to the rain—you can get updates at usga.org.

But first I had to park in Sponsor Lot E. Did I mention that unlike every other golf fan in the world, I didn’t get there when the gates opened at 6 a.m.? Sponsor Lot E was full, so about six hat-wearing, gun-toting, New York State Troopers were involved in switching me to Lot F. Many walkie-talkie conversations, and much stamping, and looking at my driver’s license later, I was at the shuttle station waiting for a vehicle to take me to the U.S. Open. Most attendees were parking at Jones Beach, which would be like parking in New Jersey to go to Madison Square Garden.

After what seemed like a long wait, the shuttle driver asked me if I had seen anyone else pull in. He was reluctant to waste a whole shuttle ride on just lonesome me. Once inside the heavily secured compound, the driver handed me a map of the site and hauled off. It was obvious to even him that I was a golf loser. Who even bothers showing up at noon?

All of a sudden, my childhood came rushing back to me. Here I was again on a giant golf course, wandering forlornly around the giddy but silent attendees, cursing my choice of footwear, with no clue what to do with myself. Everywhere around me, people were skipping with energy and delight in every direction. Even though it was a practice round, there were a zillion people there, all dressed as if they could waltz out to the tees at any second and take a swing.

Now there are two viewing strategies for golf tournaments: You can follow one foursome around the course, like lemmings chasing a moving cliff, or you find a key spot, plant yourself like a mushroom, and watch the panoply of golf royalty play through. I chose to do both, which is what only the really stupid people do. I was reminded of what my friend Bill said over the weekend, “Golf is really best watched on television.”

On the 12th hole, where no action seems to take place, I was chatting up two volunteers—despite this being one of the richest sporting events in the world, everyone was working for free—hoping they would drive me to Tent City, or Retail Village, or whatever it’s called, and if not, would they at least just let me sit in the golf cart. (There is nowhere to sit at a golf tournament.) Then, all of a sudden, people began running past me.

Thinking vaguely of Columbine, I joined the crowd. But it was Tiger Woods! He’s walking this way!!!

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was super excited all of a sudden. I couldn’t care less about Tiger Woods, but the air was positively electric! The whispering began. “Tiger’s going to tee light on the 12th.” “He’s driving really well.” “He’s smart to practice today, when nobody is here.” (There are, like, 500 people in 15 square feet now.) “This is a long driving course. If Tiger’s driving well, no one can beat him.”

On and on these people went. Finally, I figured it out. The reason that everyone insists on constant techno-gibberish at a golf tournament is because there is absolutely nothing else to do.

After Tiger teed: “He really got behind that.” “He’s keeping his weight really low.” “It’s his torque that gives him power, not just back strength.” The crowd ran away from me to get down around the fairway so they can begin the next round of whispered commentary.

I headed to Tent City, which is just like the Denver airport, only nicer. You can buy anything in the world related to golf, or, if you have a sponsor ticket, you can eat and drink anything you want for free in one of the zillions of tents.

I headed over to the American Express tent. Would I like my swing electronically analyzed? Would I like to simul-putt on different greens from different eras? American Express has set up a machine that simulates the different type of turf, grass, lining, whatever, and first you putt in 1950, then 1980, then today. Wow, the greens are so much faster today—something I kind of instinctively knew.

But everyone was being really nice. American Express vice president of sponsorship marketing Courtney Kelso explained how card members are “passionate” about golf, they “live” for golf. AmEx’s goal is to get them “closer to the game.” (Next year, I predict a ride where participants scrunch up and watch a movie that makes them think they are the ball.) The top card member package, which sells for $325 (Thursday/Friday) and $350 (Saturday/Sunday), gets you in the tent at the coveted 15th hole. (Don’t ask me, all these tents look the same to me after a while.) Sniffing for anything resembling news, I asked Courtney if there were any big-wig financial clients strutting around, spending TARP money or anything. No such luck. “We’re not doing any corporate entertaining this year. All activities are aimed at card members.” Seems wise.

Not to be outdone in golf minutiae, the Lexus pavilion has two U.S.G.A.-approved videos, excruciating to watch, about why there are ridges on golf clubs and why there are dimples on golf balls. Did you know that the blades of grass that come between the club face and the ball are instantly pulverized into liquid? These videos explain that and a whole lot more.

Here in Tent City, even though the golf course is about a mile away, there are screens everywhere showing you the action on every single hole. It’s just like on the course, except you don’t have to walk as far. Plus there are chairs! Which is good, because now I was carrying all sorts of giveaways—a visor made out of some sort of miracle fiber (it does feel light), a little pocket knife with tools for golf (none of which, besides the green pick, I can actually remember what to do with), pamphlets, brochures, cards, maps, and tote bags of many colors to carry them.

I sat down on a comfy folding chair to collate all my new belongings, wondering if I would have to get a bigger car, when a roar arose. Now in this area, people were talking at full volume. Apparently, some player whose name sounds like Pablo Escobar, the famous cocaine king, hooked his drive and hit a spectator.

“He takes a stroke.” “No he doesn’t.” “He only takes a stroke if the person wasn’t on the course.” (How does that happen?) “He plays it where it lays.” “No, he gets to move it.”

Suddenly, I remembered I was carrying my French-calf-bound The Rules of Golf. I announced my prize to the strangers nearby. Soon I was popular, surrounded by new friends as I flipped through the fancy pages with gold edging. But soon it became clear that I didn’t even know where to begin looking, and my friends started to turn on me.

“Look under ‘deflections of ball.’” “No, it’s ‘interference by outside agency.’” “Try ‘re-dropping the ball.’”

Sensing that I was losing the crowd, I handed The Rules of Golf over to an official-looking man in a navy blazer. (The people who don’t dress like they are about to play dress like they are the commodore of the yacht club, with patches and fancy little pins, etc.) I was quickly squeezed out as my former friends strained to look over Mr. Navy Blazer’s shoulder. A child glanced at me with disgust.

Now, a bonus for those of you who read this far:

Cocktails With the Dis(Countess)
There is so much more to tell about the U.S. Open , and I want to, really I want to, but I simply must quickly report my evening with The New York Hamptonite magazine at the venue run by Four Seasons Caterer in Southampton. The New York Hamptonite is the new freebie out here—it is hilarious by mistake; pick one up. The Real Housewives of New York City's Countess (for, like, a minute, until she gets divorced) LuAnn de Lesseps is on the cover. There’s a story about her inside; there’s a sidebar with etiquette tips from her book, Class With the Countess; and (surprise!) she’s going to do a column every week, or month, or whenever they plan to put out another magazine, which I think they should call Hamptons With the Countess.

She looks great in person, tall and regal and not so, well, handsome. I screw up my courage for an interview.

Me: I read your article(s). When does Class With the Countess come out?
The Countess: April 19.
Me: Oops, sorry. I write about parties. Any entertaining tips in your book?
The Countess: The whole book is about entertaining.
Me: Double oops. Can I get any ideas for entertaining this summer?
The Countess: Call my publicist, Susan Blond.

As much as I like Susan Blond, I’m not sure I’m going to follow up.

Venue note: This was my second event at a new party hall run by Four Seasons Caterer, which is in the historic building that housed the John Duck Inn forever. It used to have a zillion ducks outside, but no more. (“They’re dirty,” owner Jean Mackenzie told me.) What they do have is a pretty lawn with a weekly bonfire party for walk-ins on Tuesday night and really good food. Mackenzie also owns Clamman, one of the three or four best seafood stores in Suffolk County. So go ahead, eat something fishy. For more pictures visit fourseasoncaterer.com.


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