By Ken Klavon, USGA
San Diego – As Tony Romo took practice swings on the elevated 15th tee box Friday, awaiting his dawdling fellow competitors, Matt Lauer walked in his line of sight and may have summed up his day right then and there.
“Do me a favor,” quipped the NBC “Today” host. “Hit it right now. Just put me out of my misery.”
Lauer was 24 over par at that point with only five shots to spare on the final four holes. Justin Timberlake, the third celebrity of the foursome, at 25 over, opined, “I’m not even paying attention anymore. What fun? Seriously, I’m having a blast. Are you kidding me? We’re like the kids who get to play on the playground before all the talented kids get to play on it.”
Of course, Timberlake was referencing what brought him to Torrey Pines in the first place: the Golf Digest/USGA Contest foursome. The mission? Break 100 on a U.S. Open setup with 3,500 in a gallery preening over every shot, not to mention the NBC cameras following every swing and USGA senior director of Rules and competitions Mike Davis making sure the contestants followed the Rules of Golf. Without knowing it, Tiger Woods birthed the concept last year when he mockingly suggested that an 8-handicapper had a snowball’s chance in hell of breaking 100 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club the way it had been set up for the U.S. Open. The caveat being threefold: a legitimate Open setup, a makeshift audience and cameras and media being part of the soiree.
At a small player’s dinner Thursday evening, Timberlake grabbed a microphone and did a comical bit, jabbing back at Woods. While mimicking a telephone call to him, Timberlake suggested that the World’s No. 1 big shot should croak out a few tunes with a legitimate band prior to one of his concerts. What’s fair is fair.
Even 39-nine-year-old John Atkinson of Omaha, Neb., hammed it up at Woods’ expense Friday. On the 14th teeing ground, Atkinson stopped mid-swing, leading to bizarre looks from all. “No cameras, please,” Atkinson wisecracked. Timberlake and his caddie, former Woods teacher Butch Harmon, high-fived him.
The golf contest, by many standards, was a novel idea wrapped up in surreal happenstance. Greg Norman, who caddied for his buddy Lauer, marveled afterward about it.
“I think it’s one of the best things to ever happen to golf,” said Norman. “It’s great for golf and I’d love to see them do it again. From my perspective, being here as a professional to support them, was important I think.”
Norman grilled all four to stay in the present throughout the day, although he smiled like the Cheshire cat from “Alice in Wonderland” most of the round.
“This was a reality check,” added Norman. “A player on a muni course with no rough who shoots 90 thinks they should feel good about it. This was the extreme, ultra test. These guys aren’t used to walking 18 holes, the fatigue that comes with it, the blood sugar dropping and losing the mental focus. But you have to find a way to come back in the moment.”
Atkinson of Omaha, Neb., was perhaps the darling of the foursome. Selected from more than 56,000 applicants, he was diagnosed with lung cancer on March 29, 2007. When told he won the final spot, he accepted the honor with grace and dignity. He also took it serious. So much so that when USGA President Jim Vernon called him at home to congratulate him, Atkinson was in the middle of a lesson. In his home. Because it was raining outside. This didn’t surprise at least one of his 61 friends and family in attendance. Why would it? After all, Atkinson’s the same guy who keeps a net in his basement so he can hit balls.
“He shot 82 on one of his days of chemo,” said friend Steve Paup.
Atkinson prepared hard, vigorously working on his game. About a month ago between 40-50 acquaintances followed him to Indian Creek Golf Course in Elkhorn, Neb., just to serve as a backdrop gallery. Bob Rotella, the famed golf psychologist, teamed up with him. He also looped for Atkinson on Friday. If Atkinson was going to star in one of his dreams, he better know the lines.
“He’s handled this like he’s handled that: with optimism and courage,” said Atkinson’s 61-year-old father, Ed, citing his cancer.
Atkinson, like the other three, sported a grim face as he warmed up on the range. Timberlake received final tutelage from Harmon, with the swing guru offering tips like, “Straighten it out; a little more compact.” Lauer, stopping occasionally to take photos with fans, worked on his short game as Norman hovered over his bag. Romo made small talk with Nick Sekeres, his best friend from high school who was his caddie.
When they made their way to the first tee, a straightaway 448-yard par 4, there were more nervous laughs than those that surfaced during Kanye West’s diatribe amid a Hurricane Katrina relief television fund-raiser.
Timberlake ripped his drive, the ball landing in the first cut. Lauer snap-hooked his that went a mere 100 yards. Romo, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback who donned his team’s hat and golf shirt, boomed it left into the first cut. Romo is no stranger to U.S. Open pressure as he has tried – unsuccessfully – to actually qualify for the championship, shooting 69 in 2005 when he wasn’t quite as well known.
Atkinson received the loudest ovation, surely ratcheting up the anxiety. He took an easy swing and stayed straight.
Fred Couples walked inside the ropes. He approached Timberlake on the first fairway. “I told her [his friend] you might have trouble putting the ball on the tee,” he giggled. “You did great.”
That colored the day. It was light fare throughout. That’s not to say they didn’t try. Oh, they did. But ever try to climb up a wet slide? Inevitably, you’re going to lose grip. That’s what playing the South Course was like.
After four-putting the third hole to go three over, Romo showed moxie. He made the turn at five over when it could have been worse. Romo was probably the best bet to break 100, ultimately finishing with an 84, because can measure up to the pros. That’s what Couples said early in the round.
“Anytime he gets in an event like this,” said his father, Ramiro Romo, “he appreciates it, although he would like to do it the right way and play in an Open.”
Said his son afterward: “When you watch it on TV, you really have no idea how hard it is. When they first called to tell me about this, I said to myself, ‘I can break 100.’ Then you start hearing about the rough, everything that goes into this and the doubt creeps in where you start saying, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough to break 100.’”
Norman, meanwhile, did his best to keep the group in stitches. When Davis made a late decision to move the 13th tee up 20 yards, Timberlake unknowingly walked to the furthest point.
“You guys got lucky,” said Norman. “You’re playing the up tees. Yeah, you guys are playing up here on the ladies’ tees.”
All four played their drives perfectly, clearing the cavernous canyon that carried some 240 yards.
If anything constituted as high drama, that came near the end. Lauer and Timberlake had crept close to 100 with four holes to play. Timberlake, easily the most fashionably-dressed player with his black pork-pie hat and tuxedo-striped pants, bogeyed the par-3 16th to fall to 26 over. So too did Lauer to drop to 27 over.
Lauer’s hopes were dashed on the 17th when his fade off the tee got sucked into the right rough. He tried chopping out but his ball found a patented Rees Jones fairway bunker, effectively leading to a double bogey.
On the 18th green, he saved face with a lagged 12-footer for par. He raised his right arm in triumph even if he didn’t break 100, actually hitting the mark.
“I was prepared mentally,” said Lauer. “But when I got on that first tee, I started to hear the music start. Thump, thump, thump. My mind started to spin. I got down on myself. That’s the pressure you get. The course, the people, the cameras. That’s why the guys on the tour are so damned good.”
A weary Timberlake finessed in a 3-footer on the 18th to finish 27 over, or 98. He also came away having a new-found appreciation for the professionals. Still, he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
“That took every ounce of energy I had,” said Timberlake. “But look, the beauty of this is that you can’t sit at home and think you can go to Yankee Stadium and hit a fastball off Mariano Rivera. You can’t play quarterback in a Super Bowl – unless you’re Tony Romo. That’s what’s great about this. You can go walk on Torrey Pines and play the same course as the best pros in the world. … But if there is such a thing as a healthy hatred toward a course ….”
And what of Atkinson? His score ballooned as the day wore on. His father felt that to be a blessing because, with the pressure off, he could enjoy the experience more. His supporters never wavered, raucously cheering nearly every one of his 114 shots. Atkinson just absorbed it. He smiled, traded high-fives and laughs with the others, and never seemed a bit uncomfortable.
On his way to the final hole, Atkinson saw his three children, 10-year-old Machaela, 8-year-old Andrew and Christopher, 5, holding signs that said they loved their daddy. If that weren’t enough, his brother Kevin snuck the bag from Rotella and walked the final steps with him. Atkinson broke down on the 18th fairway. He made his final putt, a 3-footer, and the three celebrities embraced him individually before his family took their turn.
“On the last green I was tearing up,” said Lauer. “That was my favorite memory of the day and it will be my favorite memory when I think back on this.”
The outreach of support overwhelmed Atkinson. He seemed grateful for the opportunity. More than that, he ended with words of hope.
“No matter what it is, keep dealing with the circumstances,” he said. “Don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t let cancer rule your life.”
Gimmick or not, the contest went beyond four hacks trying to beat a number. The lesson learned exceeded penal rough and tight fairways. Golf has touched one man’s life in an unforeseen way. Golf should be so proud to have done so.
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s Editor of New Media. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.