(Editor’s note: Please excuse my absence this weekend. I visited Washington, D.C. to soak in the U.S. Open. This post was inspired by the golf, but it relates to basketball and, really, all sports.)
One day, we might recall Rory McIlroy’s 16-under performance at the U.S. Open like Michael Jordan’s 63 points, the day when a superstar began to sprout wings, the day when God disguised himself as a 22-year old Irishman with a flawless golf swing.
I was there at Congressional Country Club, watching my first golf tournament in person, but I only saw McIlroy make seven shots. I missed his near hole-in-one on the tenth hole. I missed his birdie putt on number one. I missed almost all of his wedges that scraped the clouds and almost all of his drives that would not, could not, find the rough. When I finally watched McIlroy play an entire hole, the first one I saw him play all day, he made his worst putt of the weekend and three-putted the 17th green.
Rather than follow McIlroy’s group all day, I parked myself along the 17th fairway and watched each twosome that passed by. From my perch, I witnessed Sergio Garcia’s pace of play, which reminded me of Daisuke Matsuzaka on downers. I marveled at Brian Gay’s loose grip on the club, his relaxed hands acting as if they were holding a live dove. I observed the 19-year old Japanese stud Ryo Ishikawa’s hip turn, violent in its force but gentle in its grace. I saw Lee Westwood stare down fans who made the slightest noise, and I saw Graeme McDowell’s easy smile. I heard fans shout, “Here we go, Tiger,” even though Tiger did not even enter the tournament, and I listened to roars erupt from all over the golf course. But no roars ever came from the 17th hole; during my whole time there, perhaps three or four hours, nothing truly memorable happened.
History was being made at Congressional Country Club; while I was not oblivious to that fact, I mostly kept my distance from it. My friends and I had tried to follow McIlroy’s twosome at the beginning of his round, but we only stuck around for his first two shots. We did not feel like climbing a tree to get a decent view, nor did we feel like getting into a shoving match to make our way closer, nor did we feel like watching the back side of someone’s head rather than McIlroy’s swing. So we left history and made our way to the mundane 17th hole, where we could enjoy a front row seat and soak in more of the details.
In basketball terms, I left Jordan’s first championship to watch J.J. Redick shoot jumpers, Reggie Evans rebound, Jose Calderon hand out assists and Thabo Sefolosha hound someone into an off-shooting night. Each player I watched on that 17th hole brought something unique, just as every basketball player contributes something slightly different (except Eddy Curry). From behind 12 rows of people, I could barely make out McIlroy’s swing. But I could walk within a few feet of Bubba Watson and watch him drive the ball a country mile. I found myself wondering whether I would make the same trade-off in basketball.
If I had the chance to watch Delonte West from three feet away or Lebron James from the nosebleeds, what would I choose? Would I sit close to West so I could observe his intricate jab-step series and understated athleticism, or would I sit on the balcony to watch James’s once-in-a-generation tools from afar?
We finally caught up to McIlroy when he reached the 17th hole. Since we had parked there for most of the day, we had a front-row seat when he came through. He didn’t hit a perfect shot into the green, nor was it anywhere close, but I stood close enough to greatness that I could see beads of sweat on its face. I could see his swing like I saw so many others—from the front row, in high definition—but there was something quite obviously different about his. Even my untrained eye (I am to golf what Shaq is to free throw shooting) could see that McIlroy’s swing had no rival.
I imagine soccer fans get the same feeling watching Kevin Durant, not knowing enough to realize exactly what sets him apart, but understanding that he seems far more effortless, graceful, and poetic than his competitors. Watching McIlroy swing so close to me, I wondered whether I should have followed him all day, strained neck and bad views be damned. Then I thought about watching all the lesser players from ten feet away, with a view so close I could see the crease in their pants, and I realized I had made only one mistake all day—wearing shoes rather than sneakers. Before sitting along the 17th fairway I had done a lot of walking, and blisters don’t feel good.
McIlroy made his final putt to finish with the best score in U.S. Open history, and I joined 40,000-ish people in surrounding him on the green. I stood in the fairway behind him, watching McIlroy smile and briefly pump his fist as the majestic Congressional clubhouse and a sea of cheering witnesses to history served as his backdrop.Phones and cameras were not allowed on the course, so I had no way to preserve the moment in the form of a photograph.
Maybe it’s better that way, because my imagination has already altered the moment for the better, making the crowd 100,000, the sky bright blue and my feet unaffected by blisters. The presence of greatness blanketed me and brought me warmth like an open fire, but even while watching McIlroy celebrate history, I knew I would never forget Brian Gay’s grip.