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Column: Sunday at US Open a memorable experience

POSTED: June 17, 2014 6:18 p.m.

PINEHURST, N.C. — For about 11 hours Sunday, I had the chance to see the world’s best golfers in action.

Our group of three parked in a dusty field, then rode a shuttle bus that delivered us to an incredibly beautiful and challenging venue. We walked Pinehurst No. 2 for the final round of the U.S. Open.

Sure, the outcome — at least in terms of the winner — was rarely in doubt during the tournament’s fourth day. But getting to see the talent of everyone involved up close is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

We started by following 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and amateur prodigy Matthew Fitzpatrick for a few holes. They each had a birdie to start en route to rounds of 67 and 69, respectively. I have a feeling the memories of Fitzpatrick from Sunday will be recounted numerous times as he continues his rise.

Another neat aspect of the day was getting to hear multiple players announced at the start of their rounds. Perhaps most interesting in that regard, at least from what I observed, was the only modifier that went in front of anyone’s name was U.S. Open champion (if they had won one, with the year noted). Not world No. 1, not champion of another major, simply recognition only if you were among the few to win the American national championship.

Speaking of former U.S. Open champions and the world’s No. 1 golfer, we also followed Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open champ) and Adam Scott (current No. 1). They began Sunday 11 shots off the lead, but it still showed how power-packed pairings are even that far down the leaderboard on Sundays at a major.

Watching that duo and those cheering for or encouraging them after a miss underscored to me to just how razor-sharp these players’ focus has to be. It’s a game of inches in front of enormous crowds on blistering hot days.

That leaves little time to acknowledge the positive or negative of the crowd.

That was especially the case for runaway winner Martin Kaymer, of Germany, who faced some fans openly cheering loudly when he made missteps and chanting “USA” in support of his final-day playing partner, Rickie Fowler. He took it all in stride with superb grace and just kept lapping the field.

It was quite an experience seeing the reception for Erik Compton, the 34-year-old former Georgia Bulldog and two-time receiver of a heart transplant. Clearly, the crowd, wanted him to at least make it close, but every time he would get a shot back, he would make a bogey or Kaymer would rack up another birdie.

As the day wound down, I wasn’t quite sure what moment would stand out as most memorable. But a couple of late images will be hard to forget.

Rickie Fowler’s recovery from an errant tee shot on No. 16, beginning with a shot taken from a spot I couldn’t see from the grandstand at the 16th green and most people on the course probably couldn’t, was nothing short of breathtaking. Then, his up-and-down from the bunker and par putt capped off a brilliant save at what could have sunk his day.

It was an unpredictable moment that drew a hearty applause and brought the grandstand to its feet. Fittingly, it was one of the rare times you saw a player acknowledge the fans during the round, as well.

Then, after Kaymer received his trophy, as Fowler and Compton were honored for tying for second, the pair of runners-up locked arms in a no-doubt emotional hug.

Where they go from there is perhaps the most interesting question.

Kaymer now has two major championships and won the Players Championship earlier this year after a brief previous stay at No. 1, making it clear he can be a contender for world supremacy again.

But can those scrappy underdogs, Fowler and Compton, find their way into contention again and end up lifting the big trophy in coming years?

It’s a good question with no certain answer. But one thing’s for sure. They captured our imagination Sunday.

It was a long day with a ton of walking, often through beach-like sand, with plenty of water consumed.

It was worth every step and sip.

Clark Leonard is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at cleonard@gainesvilletimes.com.


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