U.S. Open debates, for argument's sake

6/18/2006 - Golf

MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski and Ivan Maisel, who rarely agree on anything, are here at Winged Foot to cover the U.S. Open. They both walked the course, both watched the leaderboard, and both needed help to identify your Open co-leader, Kenneth Ferrie of England. As the final round approaches, Geno and Ivan discuss what happened Saturday, and what could happen Sunday.

Geno: OK, I'm not ashamed to admit it: I didn't know Kenneth Ferrie existed on this planet until Friday. I thought the Kenneth Ferrie is the boat you took to cross the Kenneth River. All those who picked Ferrie to be the 54-hole Open co-leader -- European Tour followers or Golf Channel geeks don't qualify -- raise your hands. Thought so. But I'll give the guy credit: For someone making his first-ever U.S. Open appearance, he handled Winged Foot and the third-round pressure with a smile, grace, and some nice golf. Of course, it's going to be a lot different being paired with the people's choice, Phil Mickelson, for Sunday's final round, as opposed to playing with Geoff Ogilvy on Saturday.

Ivan: If it makes you feel any better, Geno, even Mickelson said he knew nothing about Ferrie's game. He softened it by saying, "He's in the final group of the U.S. Open. He's got to be some kind of player." Hey, I'm not about to knock a guy who won the 2005 Smurfit European Open. That trophy of Papa Smurfit is really cool. Ferrie has got the fastest swing since Nick Price, and he's made it work for three rounds. But longshots don't win the Open, especially at Winged Foot. The four previous Open winners here -- Bobby Jones, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin and Fuzzy Zoeller -- all won at least two majors. It's time, Geno, to ask the Dan Rather question: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"

Geno: Nobody knew who he was -- not me, Mickelson, R.E.M., most of the galleries at Winged Foot, NBC and, admit it, not you. Did you see the outdated mugshot of Ferrie that NBC ran during its telecast? It looks like his high school graduation photo. But the big English lug (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) has a good sense of humor and, like Mickelson said, a solid game to shoot 71-70-71 at a course that a lot of the pros here are calling the hardest, but one of the fairest Open setups in years, decades, maybe ever.
But let's face it, Ferrie has never faced what he's going to face Sunday: A Lefty Lovefest, where the galleries are going to be 10 deep, and all rooting for Mickelson ... greens that are going to dry out even more (it's supposed to be in the low 90s here) ... and the p-r-e-s-s-u-r-e. Mickelson, who has won the last two majors and seems to almost always play well at a big tournament in the New York area, is the logical favorite to leave Mamaroneck with another trophy. Meanwhile, Ferrie's best finish in the States is a 19th-place finish at the 2005 WGC-NEC Invitational.

Ivan: I'm not dumb enough to make any guarantees about Ferrie not winning. I covered Ben Curtis winning the 2003 British Open. Four or five guys are still kicking themselves over giving that one away. Think about this: There's not much at stake for ol' Phil there, Geno. The guy has finished second in three of the last seven Opens. He has played in the final twosome twice. If he doesn't win Sunday, there's going to be a faint aroma of Sam Snead about Lefty. Snead is the greatest player never to win the U.S. Open. Tom Watson struggled to win it, too. He had six top-10s before he won in his 11th start, at Pebble Beach in 1982.

I'm not panicking, but this is Mickelson's 16th Open. I realize he is just hitting his prime at 36, while Watson won only three times after he turned 34. But this is the best opportunity Mickelson has had yet. He has never held a share of the lead going into the final round of the Open. Only three guys who have even won a major are within five strokes of him, and the closest, Vijay Singh, is spotting Phil three shots.

If Mickelson wins, that's three legs of the Tiger Slam and half of the Grand Slam. If he loses -- and by that I mean, someone doesn't pull a Johnny Miller at Oakmont and have a lifetime round -- that's what this Open will be remembered for: the one Mickelson lost. And I don't think there are any 65s out there, much less 63s. The low round of the tournament remains a 68. Mike Weir, who's four back, said after the round that he thinks there's a 65 out there for him, which makes me wonder if his TaylorMades aren't the only Canadian Club he pulled on Saturday.

Geno: How dare you bark at me like some little junkyard dog (and, by the way, I liked the Canadian Club line, though I don't think Weirsy is going to laugh). Look, I'm not guaranteeing a Lefty win, but before you start invoking Ben Curtis' name (and, yes, we all know you covered the British -- you take tea every afternoon), chew on these numbers: Mickelson has won 17 of the last 22 tournaments he led going into the final round, including eight of his last nine. Three of those eight just happened to be majors. Is that any good?

Scarily enough, I agree with you about no 65s out there. I'm not sure there's any 66s, 67s or 68s out there, either. There were only two sub-70 rounds on Saturday, and only eight for the tournament. So we can pretty much rule out anyone going Johnny on us.

Now let me ask you a question: Do you have a problem with your U.S. Open winner finishing above par?

Ivan: Absolutely not. It's a funny thing, watching this Open. You really have to recalibrate your thinking about good play. At The Masters, we live for the roars, for the way Augusta National makes guys get on the risk-reward fulcrum and choose one. At Winged Foot, a guy makes a charge by standing still. Luke Donald shot 78 on Thursday and stood tied for 90th. He has put up rounds of 69 and 70 and is now tied for 11th. Which, by the way, is another measure of the Maturation of Phil. He has made seven birdies in the three rounds, and he's leading. Mickelson said Saturday night, "I'm just going to try to make a lot of pars, maybe a birdie here or there."

I think it's now fair to ask the question: why in the name of A.W. Tillinghast did it take the USGA 22 years to get back here? I know the members wouldn't stand for it, but as far as I'm concerned, let's make Winged Foot the official New York home of the Open, and forget about Shinnecock and Bethpage.

That has nothing to do with the fact that I'm sleeping in my own bed this week. Well, not much.

For argument's sake, to coin a phrase, if Mickelson doesn't win it, who does?

Geno: I'll get to the winner in a minute, but first, a little something about recalibration, to use one of your Stanford words. On most holes here, a par is equal to a birdie at, say, the Honda Classic. Mickelson said Saturday night that six consecutives pars moves you up the leaderboard. At most tournaments, six pars means you stay still or lose ground.

I love this place. To me, it's been the star of the week. The clubhouse. The classic design. The easy-to-walk factor. All of it is wonderful. But here's why it takes so long for return visits: The USGA shaves the greens down to peach fuzz. Mickelson says it will actually kill some of these greens, which must thrill the members here. But it makes for great golf ... golf at the absolute highest (and sometimes, most ridiculous) level, which is what U.S. Opens are known for.

You talk about the maturation of Phil. I didn't know this until after his third round, but Mickelson had a 64-degree wedge made to use on this course. He knew he was going to need to land the ball softer on these greens. He used the wedge at The Memorial and you saw what happened. He hit the thing like buttah. I don't want to get too inside-golf here, but that special wedge is saving him all sorts of strokes here at Winged Foot.

Now then, my U.S. Open pick. I wrote Thursday that Lefty was best positioned to win this thing, and nothing has changed my mind about his chances. He knows the course. He knows these New Yorkers want to marry him. And he knows how to be patient. I'll stick with Mickelson, but Geoff Ogilvy and Colin Montgomerie could make a serious run. Ogilvy is one of the best golfers the casual golf fan has never heard of, and Monty didn't let a front-nine 40 destroy him Saturday. He came back with a little 35, which puts him only three strokes off the lead. Ogilvy is only one back.

OK, let me guess: you're picking ... Luke Donald?

Ivan: No, I'm picking Mickelson, too, mainly because his victory would be the best story, and, as always, I root for me. I like your Ogilvy pick, because he won the Match Play this year and not just anyone wins the Match Play. Well, yeah, Steve Stricker won it. He started beautifully on Saturday, but just lost it after five holes. He played the final 13 in 7-over.

Monty showed everyone something Saturday, and it will be charming and heartwarming if he wins, but at this point, I still think the headlines Monday would be "Mickelson Loses." I'll say this: If Mickelson leaves an opening Sunday, the first guy to blow through it will be Veej. Like Mickelson, Singh would be three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam if he wins Sunday. I don't think he will catch Mickelson because I don't think Mickelson shifts it into "R." If I knew anything about NASCAR, I'd make some clever analogy here, but I don't. So that's it.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com. Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.