Memorial Day weekend is typically characterized by good vibrations – barbecues, parades, remembrances, sunshine, the feel of summer to come. So why the heck was the golf world so addled while the rest of us are relaxing so fully?
Rory McIlroy imploded again, missed a second consecutive cut and lost his No. 1 ranking. Ernie Els turned salty at course conditions in England, channelling Richard Pryor with his vocabulary of anger. Jason Dufner went from "The New Tiger" or "The New Hogan" (take your pick, golf fans) to a back-nine fader, finally running out of magic. Even this week's US PGA Tour winner, Zach Johnson, fended off about 40 questions in his post-round press conference about the failure to move his ball mark on the 72nd hole, which incurred a two-stroke penalty that nearly cost him the big check. A guy in a red plaid sport coat hasn't sounded so defensive since Wimp Sanderson parried with cynical boosters at an Alabama basketball fund raiser.
(And yes, I had to work hard to come up with a red plaid sport-coat analogy.)
The golf world needs a pick-me-up after all that negativity. Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament this week will help thanks to its star-laden, sure-fire extravaganza. So will the 112th United States Open, which begins just two weeks from Thursday amid the fresh coastal air of San Francisco's Olympic Club. Maybe that's why everyone's stressing out or pressing – a major lurks.
Let's put two and two together, then. It seems to me that the three biggest names of the weekend – Johnson, Dufner and European Tour BMW PGA Championship winner and newly minted (again) No. 1 player in the world Luke Donald – are the three best bets to win at Olympic.
First off, the trio are playing dynamite golf. Dufner's run is well-chronicled, what with wins in New Orleans and the Byron Nelson, leading to Sunday's runner-up finish at Colonial. Johnson's win at Colonial follows second-place finishes at Hilton Head and Sawgrass, making him the hottest player not named "Dufner." And Donald is fresh off toppling a great field in England. He's as consistent as Dufner's unchanging expression, finishing third in New Orleans and sixth at Sawgrass before the victory in Europe.
Perhaps more important, each fulfils Olympic Club's No. 1 rule to win: No need to be a colourful star.
Olympic's history is amazingly consistent in that at each of the previous four national championships held there, a lesser name toppled one of the game's greatest.
In 1955, Iowa club pro Jack Fleck stunned Ben Hogan – and the world – with a playoff win over The Hawk. In 1966, Arnold Palmer was swashbuckling his way to triumph – until a back-nine collapse made Billy Casper the champion. In 1987, Tom Watson came up one stroke shy of little-known Scott Simpson. And in 1998, the quiet grinder Lee Janzen outlasted the flamboyant Payne Stewart by one.
So it would be so very Olympian to see Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods or Els – the names your mom would know – edged by the likes of a Zach Johnson, about whom your mom would say: "Who's he?" (Yes, even though he has a green jacket.)
Second, each of the players in that hot trio plays Olympic's game. The tight, dog-legged layout with canted fairways and small greens doesn't reward the long-and-wrong crowd. None of the trio is a bomber; each lives on driving accuracy and greens in regulation – just like Janzen (23rd in GIRs in 1998, the year of his triumph) or Simpson (21st in driving accuracy in 1987, the year he won). Donald is 14th in accuracy, Johnson is 10th and Dufner is top-10 in both accuracy and GIRs.
I'm feeling this, golf fans. I feel like Donald, Dufner and Johnson are preparing us for the next major championship by heating up at the right time.
What a stiff. The guy can't win three consecutive starts. Throw the bum out. Actually, you'll probably have to wait until he finishes his nap first. After all, no player may need one more than Dufner, who showed on the back nine what happens when the "E" light glows on the personal gas tank. Hint: It doesn't stand for "Enough."
Trying to cobble together a Tiger-esque run of three wins in three starts, Dufner turned his Yahoo! nickname of "The Walking Coma" into "The Walking Other" – as in, making a dreaded "other" on his scorecard twice on Sunday. His double-bogey "6" on the ninth hole was his first "other" in 136 holes, dating back to The Players Championship. He had made no worse than a bogey in nearly a month. For good measure, just to show America what it's like to really hit the wall, he went only five holes before doing it again, logging a triple-bogey "7" on No. 15. At that point, CBS' David Feherty cogently summarized: "His brain is now on a stick. He's carrying it around." All of Feherty's cohorts agreed that Dufner's legs and concentration must be gone, after a month that went, in order, win-wedding-tie 68 (TPC)-win-second.
That's two wins, a runner-up and a night spent doing "The Electric Slide" with your best pals and new bride – all in a month. That'll wear anybody out, even a flat-liner like Dufner.
Dufner had to know he had peaked when Peter Kostis used a Konica Minolta Biz Hub Swing Vision Camera analysis to compare Dufner's move to Hogan himself. The swing similarities were striking, with Kostis explaining the wide-narrow-wide/takeaway-move-contact pattern that is similar for both. The biggest differences: Hogan's leaner frame and more tailored slacks edge Dufner in the "style" category, where Dufner counters with a soul patch, paunch and lip full of tobacco.
Johnson said afterward he felt like he had "unseated a king" by beating Dufner, and while we appreciate Johnson's admiration for Dufner's play, the idea of "King" Dufner ruling the land tickles. A king, after all, brings an undeniable charisma, like Arnold, or Elvis, or Richard Petty. Dufner would be a most mellow king, and one in need of a rest about now.
Certainly, Dufner is a candidate for his three water balls on the final 10 holes at Colonial. And McIlroy's second consecutive missed cut an alarming sign for a player most of us thought was currently coming into his own is a strong candidate. McIlroy was so surprised, he slammed himself in post-round analysis, questioned his practice skills and spent Saturday at the golf course, pounding balls on the range.
But no moment deserves a "mully" more than Zach Johnson's Ball Mark Incident. It's a good lesson for us duffers: to stay focused until the bitter end. It caused his win at Colonial to be more a kerfluffle than a celebration. So in the interest of guilt-free partying, let's go back out to the 18th green, remind Johnson he moved his marker, clear our throats loudly if we see him failing to move it back and … give that man a ball-marker mulligan!
When Jack throws a party, you go. There's no such thing as checking "No" on the RSVP. You simply ask: "What time should I be there, and can I bring anything?"
As a result, Tiger is entered at the Memorial. So is Phil, Bubba Watson and new No. 1 for the sixth time in 12 weeks, Donald. And Rory. And Rickie Fowler. Even Freddie Couples will get after it in Ohio.
Dufner is not. He is doing something else cool, though. He is headed to Los Angeles where he'll be helping his alma mater, Auburn University, at the NCAA golf championships at Riviera Country Club. That is, after he catches a snooze.