Commentary

Players brace for fans at Bethpage

Originally Published: June 16, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- If wine and cheese is your thing, then Bethpage Black probably is not for you. The polite applause and reverential behavior that is typical of most golf tournaments is blown away by beer and bluster here.

Maybe it is the mentality of New York sports fans, who have been known for their passion.

[+] EnlargeGolf Fans
AP Photo/Charles KrupaIn 2002, fans at Bethpage Black were loud and boisterous at the U.S. Open. The 2009 edition of the event looks to provide much of the same.

Certainly it has something to do with their pride in the course, the first one owned by taxpayers to host a U.S. Open when it did so in 2002.

After just seven years, the 109th U.S. Open has returned to Long Island and the golf course, where locals can play for $55, thanks no doubt to the venue's viability as a championship layout but also the atmosphere provided by the fans.

"The crowd is going to be completely nuts," said Rocco Mediate, runner-up to Tiger Woods at last year's U.S. Open. "They were nuts then, and it's going to be great. I love that aspect of it. It will be loud out there."

There is no question about that.

You can ask just about anybody who played here the last time, and he'll have a story. Sergio Garcia was ridiculed, and Phil Mickelson adored -- along with all manners of treatment in between.

"That gallery is very vocal," said Kenny Perry, who tied for 45th here in 2002. "They'll definitely -- if you challenge them, they will be all over you. So you just acknowledge and, 'Yeah, I stink today or whatever.'

"I think the fans are great here. I think it's a two-way street, though. If they don't like you, they can really get on to you and drive you crazy; and if they like you, that energy, that vibe there will help you play better. They are definitely very boisterous up here."

There is no better example than Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Garcia. Mickelson, who is from Southern California, was unquestionably the most popular player in the field in '02, even more so than Woods. Fans sang "Happy Birthday" to him one day and cheered him as one of their own.

Montgomerie was the subject of a GolfDigest campaign that saw the magazine distribute buttons that said "Be Nice To Monty." Nonetheless, the Scotsman could not escape the jeers of fans, who made unflattering comments about his physique.

Garcia, meanwhile, had the week from hell. At the time, he was going through his infamous issue of constantly regripping the club at address. It was so pronounced that the fans actually took to counting -- in Spanish. Things grew so bad during the second round that Garcia made an obscene gesture toward a spectator.

"I remember when he did that," Mediate said. "I kind of went ... he probably shouldn't have done that. 'What do you mean?' he said. I said, 'You'll find out probably for the rest of your career coming to New York.' He'll never forget."

Making matters worse, Garcia complained later that day that the conditions were so bad during the afternoon round that play should have been stopped. And he suggested that had Woods been subjected to that kind of weather, it would have been stopped.

And yet Garcia managed to shoot a third-round 67 to get into a final-round pairing with Woods. The Spaniard eventually finished fourth.

"I think we know that New York and New Yorkers are very passionate," Garcia said. "I've been very fortunate to do very well in this area. I love New York. I love the people around here. And I'm just looking forward to see where I can go this week."

Buttering them up? Perhaps. It certainly can't hurt.

And in many cases, that enthusiasm helps.

"No doubt, it was incredible," said Woods, who in 2002 was the only player to finish under par and became the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year. "The energy that was out here, it's just phenomenal. We've never seen anything like it. It wasn't just the four rounds that we competed in. It was even the practice rounds. Monday was loud. ... It was electric the entire week. And even when it was raining, the people were out there cheering and having a great time, tipping back a couple.

"It was just an atmosphere that if you're playing well, you feel like you could keep it rolling. If you weren't playing well, people were cheering so hard for you to turn it around. It was just a great crowd to play in front of."

The fact that this is "their" course is undoubtedly part of the charm. Fans who attend the tournament are among the many who have played the Black, either sleeping in their cars or punching redial on their phones to get one of the coveted tee times.

They don't mind telling the players from beyond the ropes that they've visited the same spots and hit the same shots.

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"Everyone was so excited to have it out here on their golf course because it seemed like everyone who's played golf in this area has played this golf course," Woods said. "There's something to be said for that. Same thing with what happened to us last year at Torrey Pines. It just makes for a better environment, because everyone can relate to what we're doing because they've actually played the same golf course."

The 7,426-yard, par-70 Bethpage Black course has long been the pride and joy of area residents, and with the help of USGA executive director David Fay a decade ago, it received the upgrades it needed to host an Open.

Seven years ago, just nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks that occurred 30 miles away, the "People's Open" could not have come off any better.

More of the same is expected this week.

"It's fun," said 2006 Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "They're not shy. They'll talk to you and tell you their stories and ask you to sign stuff. A lot of places, people are a bit shy. But not here. You definitely know how they're feeling, and they let you know if they don't like you. And that's probably a good thing. You know where you stand with them."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com