ST. PETERSBURG — The PGA Championship begins Thursday at the unfailingly ferocious Bethpage State Black public golf course on Long Island, N.Y. The people’s course. And perhaps people have their champion back.
Tiger Woods is risen. He showed it at Augusta when he won the Masters. A generation of professional golfers and golf fans, who’d heard the stories, now have Tiger tales all their own.
Suddenly, the PGA is in play for Woods. This entire Grand Slam summer is in play. The PGA field includes a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree. That is a long way from Woods asking his Perkins server for a tee time. Truly one of the all-time comebacks.
Controversy still swirls about Woods, even with him back chasing Jack Nicklaus in a major way, just three back. He’s not Man of the Year. As a reminder, there is the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Woods and his girlfriend after an employee at the golfer’s restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., died when he crashed his car after drinking too much.
But there is still no way around this week, this PGA. Woods is the story, riveting, relentless. Take his rock-star appearance at our Valspar Championship in Tampa Bay in 2018 and times it by a hundred. Hey, you follow Brooks Koepka.
And Woods might actually pull this summer off. Think about it. He has won at Bethpage before, at the 2002 U.S. Open. This year’s U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach. Woods already has won an Open there. The Open Championship is the fourth Grand Slam stop, in Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy’s backyard, but can we rule out Woods upstaging him?
Things are lining up right, in a way-back machine kind of way.
I was at Bethpage in 2002 when Woods won the U.S. Open. It was a remarkable week, an Open at a muni, where it never mattered how famous you were or how many club memberships you had. Anybody could play the Black. You just had to get in line.
I loved it, in no small part because I had played Bethpage Black as a kid, walking past the warning posted on a black iron fence near the first tee: “The Black Course is an extremely difficult which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”
More to the point, my brother had played there. A lot more to the point, my father had played there. You left for the Black at 4 a.m. and you waited in line in the pre-dawn. It’s still like that today. There were all kinds of courses at Bethpage. The Yellow Course is easiest. Then there is the Green, a little harder, and the Blue, harder still. My dad always picked the Black, the ultimate test. It had to be the Black. My Uncle Dick used to tell me how on No. 10, a dogleg left, my dad always tried to hit it over the trees to make the par-4 shorter. “Then we’d look for his ball,” my uncle said. Dad died 48 years ago. But at least he went for it.
And in 2002, that was Tiger Woods, astride the golf and sports world. Nothing stood in his way, not for long, and that included the Open field that year, including a young Sergio Garcia, who was eaten alive by Bethpage galleries as if they were at a football Giants game and he was the Eagles.
It was such a New York moment, that Open. Everyone seemed to be in it together. The World Trade Center had been collapsed by terrorism not even a year earlier, the world had changed. Among those who died on 9/11 were friends of my brother Tom, a New York City firefighter. He and his FDNY buddies all were regulars at the Black.
One of them, Brian Hickey, lived in Bethpage. He’d planned to work at a course volunteer at the Open. Hickey’s body was never recovered from the rubble of Trade Center’s south tower. All that was found was his crumpled helmet. Nine months later, they held a funeral for him in Bethpage, with full honors, just before that 2002 Open.
It was that a time and place in history, New York history, American history. A people’s course carried the day and Tiger Woods walked away as the people’s champions to thunderous adulation. And here he is again, all these years later, so much older, presumably wiser, with scars to show for it. He might never be what he once was those days in 2002. None of us will be. But he’s in contention. My guess is he will be going for it this weekend. Just like my dad always did.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly