FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- After 107 years, the U.S. Open finally came to an honest-to-goodness anybody-can-afford-it municipal golf course Thursday, a joint with a $31 weekday greens fee, much like the ones that 80 percent of all American golfers call home.
At last, the elite of the sport reconnected with the rest of us. Bethpage Black isn't one of those nominally "public" Open venues at ritzy resorts such as Pebble Beach or Pinehurst where you need to take out a home equity loan to pay the day fee. The Black is a real sleep-in-your-car-to-get-a-tee-time, no-carts-allowed muni.
Fittingly, the most raucous New York cheers in this first Open round were for a 26-year-old American golfer who learned the game on a grungy muni course with a golf pedigree not one-hundredth as fancy as this gloriously brutal A.W. Tillinghast layout.
"I played enough of these (courses) as a kid. I fished enough (balls) out of the water and the trees to be able to play," said the son of a career Army officer. "Growing up on a muni, that's where I really learned to play the game.
"I wasn't able to play country clubs. We didn't have the money. So I grew up on a par-3 course in Long Beach. There are memories of a lot of the public courses growing up."
Yes, that's what Tiger Woods, who shot a 67 to lead this 102nd Open by a shot, had to say. Whatever the storyboard in golf these days, the punch line is always "Tiger." We've thought of Woods as rich and famous for so long -- Stanford-educated, polished, renowned in golf circles since his early teens -- that we forget his golf roots. And his father's.
If you had to pick one American player in this field with the most legitimate muni beginnings, it might well be Tiger. As if pushing irony to its limits, Bethpage Black is actually the second course that his father, Earl, ever played.
Nearly 30 years ago, when he was a lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, Earl Woods fudged his way onto the Dyker Beach public course near here, playing the last 17 holes out of a friend's bag because he had no clubs of his own. The next course he tried was this Bethpage Black monster. He was so overwhelmed he says he quit and just sat down under a tree and listened to the birds. Thursday, his son made birdies, as usual.
Woods seems invigorated by the crowds here that have gone totally bonkers over him. His glee at the New York-style turmoil is reminiscent of Jimmy Conners, who loved the distractions at the tennis U.S. Open here because he figured it energized him but discombobulated others.
"They're sort of enthusiastic," Woods grinned. "There's a different attitude (here). I understand it. It's because so many of the fans have been able to play this course so many times. It gets them more into it.
"That's how it was when I was growing up on public courses. We had the Queen Mary Open in Long Beach. We were excited. You take great pride in the pros playing the same course you play."
Some players here might not have adjusted to this boisterous muni state of mind. Woods apparently has. A fan's loud yell from across the fairway -- not directed at Tiger -- came in mid-putting stroke on Woods' seventh hole of the day.
This is a different kind of U.S. Open, that's for sure. At most Opens, holes are marshaled by some of the toniest members of the swankiest clubs. Great inside-the-ropes view of the event. Hob-nob with the stars at arm's length. Here, the marshals at the 17th and 18th holes are New York City firemen and police. Why not? Some NYPD and FDNY golf tournaments are played here.
One moment Thursday epitomized the mood of what is already being called "The People's Open." Between the 14th and 15th holes, Woods took a detour to a portable toilet. When he emerged, he was greeted with a cheer worthy of a double eagle.
"I made a smart comment, but they were yelling so loud they probably couldn't hear me," Woods said. "I said, 'Are you guys clapping because I'm potty-trained?' I mean, I've made it this far. You'd think I know how to go (to the bathroom)."
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