U.S. Open Challenge Batters And Bruises Again

For the second year in a row, an NFL quarterback carded the lowest score. This year it was Ben Roethlisberger’s turn. (John Mummert/USGA)

Farmingdale, N.Y. – As their collective legs of Jello wobbled off the 18th green Friday at Bethpage Black, the four Golf Digest U.S. Open competitors were on the verge of surrender.

That’s something coming from at least three-fourths of the contingent, considering their personal success. One, Justin Timberlake, holds rank as a top entertainer on the planet; the next, Michael Jordan, is a six-time NBA champion and perhaps most electrifying athlete ever; and the third, Ben Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls.

The fourth of the group, 59-year-old Larry Giebelhausen of Phoenix, Ariz., represented 73,581 contestants in trying to break 100 on a U.S. Open setup that had its teeth already sharp for next week’s championship. He prepared hard the last three months, obtaining the services of Mike LaBauve at Kierland Golf Course in Scottsdale. He practiced and played enough to lower his Handicap Index to 3.8 by game time.

“Some people will look at this as, ‘Hmm, the golf course beat him,’” said Giebelhausen, a police lieutenant. “Well, yes, but I beat myself , too.”

Giebelhausen finished with a 101 after a shaky start that brought a triple bogey on the first hole.

“It was a little demoralizing,” he said.

That seemed to be the same path Jordan, 46, was following. He, too, carded a 7 on No. 1, before stabilizing a rocky start with a par on the 210-yard par-3 eighth hole. Up to that point, the curse of a Tiger seemed to be coming true. This Tiger, who happens to own last year’s U.S. Open crown, crowed from Orlando, Fla., the other day that neither Jordan, who plays to a 1.2 Handicap Index, nor Roethlisberger, who recently said he was down to a 3.0, would break a 100 on a course the caliber of Bethpage Black. Jordan had taken 39 strokes through the first seven holes.

However, Jordan called on a mental toughness culled to near perfection on the basketball court. Jordan, wearing a fluorescent lime green shirt on his 6-foot 6-inch frame and stoking a cigar, said he thought about the times when he couldn’t find his shot during his epic battles with the New York Knicks. When that happened, he started focusing on the easier elements.

Backed by longtime pro Fred Couples on his bag, Jordan went back to a three-quarter swing that often had him hitting a low ball. The swing wasn’t quite Charles Barkley bad in looks, but it was effective.

“I’m a second-half finisher, no matter how you look at it,” said Jordan with a wry smile. “I was out of my element. If we were playing basketball, I could talk to you all day. I was nervous.

“You’re taught to play at the highest level. After a while, you’re telling yourself you are an athlete. But doubt creeps in out here.”

Jordan rebounded from a 47 on the front to shoot 39 on the back. He parred six of his final nine holes. After the round, he said he’d put the Black in his top-five favorite courses, and through it all, he had fun interacting with the gallery.

“Hey, you!” he said to a fan quaffing a sports drink. “Don’t drink that Tiger [stuff]. Drink the real stuff.”

While waiting to hit on No. 11, another spectator started friendly banter to which Jordan replied, to laugher, “Hey, everybody can’t be like Mike!”

He also playfully kicked and jabbed at Anthony Kim, caddieing for Timberlake, a number of times.

A condensed showing of the six-hour plus round will be shown prior to the fourth round of the U.S. Open a week from Sunday. Spoiler alert: all three of the celebrities broke 100.

The course setup, mirrored to look like what the field will face next week, featured a first cut of rough 2½ to 3 inches deep. A second cut, measuring 4 to 6 inches in depth, stretched to the gallery rope line. Mike Davis, senior director of Rules and Competitions for the USGA, said during the contest that the setup was close to U.S. Open standards. Only two tees, Nos. 3 and 9, were moved up.

Tiger Woods unknowingly sparked the Challenge concept two years ago when he mockingly suggested that a 10-handicapper could not break 100 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club the way it had been set up for the 2007 U.S. Open.

Roethlisberger, 27, followed another NFL quarterback’s performance in last year’s contest, carding the lowest score. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo shot an 84 at Torrey Pines. Despite an eight on the par-5 fourth hole, the Steelers QB found the least amount of nasty rough out of this year’s group. His accuracy off the tee enabled him to stay on the proper side of the hole with many of his approach shots. He had a marvelous par save on the 18th when he sent his drive in deep fescue. Somehow he was able to get up and down. After the round, Roethlisberger gave credit to his caddie — 2008 U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate. A Pennsylvania native, Mediate served as much as a mental coach as a looper, in addition to providing the savvy advice of a 25-year tour veteran.

Roethlisberger took satisfaction from his day for more than one reason.

“I talked to Tiger a couple days ago, and he said I had no chance,” said Roethlisberger. “After he said that, I got nervous.”

 

“Last year the fairways looked like bowling lanes,” he said. “Everywhere here was a bit of challenge, because I’m not used to putting on greens this fast. But the biggest difference was the walk. It’s more hilly here. Torrey was flatter. I can play a show for three hours straight and not feel as tired as I am walking this course in six hours.

“My legs started to give out. That’s where so much respect comes in. These pro guys do this four times a week. If I did that, I’d need some kind of leg surgery.”

Timberlake also said he made more friends, although he was saddened by the news this week of the passing of last year’s contest winner, John Atkinson, after a courageous battle with lung cancer. “It meant a lot to me to see someone like that, someone who was dealt bad cards,” said Timberlake. “He was very inspiring.”

Giebelhausen spoke to Atkinson several times by phone leading up to the contest. Atkinson told him to just have fun.

That’s what Giebelhausen said he’d take away from this week.

The Phoenix police officer wasn’t intimidated by his fellow golfers’ celebrity, but was impressed by their camaraderie. Even at the end, when it was a sure thing that Giebelhausen wouldn’t break 100, Jordan and Timberlake cheered him on to the last putt.

“What impressed me is that they were all nice guys,” he said. “They were fun, supportive and genuine.”

The only returning player from last year’s contest at Torrey Pines, where he shot 98, Timberlake came into this year’s event with the goal of breaking 90. Armed with the most dynamic swing of the group (although Roethlisberger can drive it a mile), the 28-year-old Timberlake made the turn with a 42, then parred two of his final three holes for an 88.

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