#StickToSU: Why The U.S. Open Is A Must-Witness Event For Sports Fans

USA TODAY Sports

Taking a break from the world of Syracuse athletics, TNIAAM's Jared Smith shares his personal experience at last year's U.S. Open hosted by The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Since Mr. Sean Keeley handed the TNIAAM reins over to yours truly over a month ago, I have had the idea of doing a Summer feature but haven't had the opportunity because of other obligations.

Well, today, with the raining again falling down on Central New York, I have some time to spew out a couple thousand words on a topic not even closely related to Syracuse University athletics.

Besides for maybe the above picture, this #StickToSU post is something I've wanted to share for awhile, however, never had the outlet to do so. Now that the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club is underway, I figured this was a perfect time to write about my experience at last year's U.S. Open hosted by The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

I'll warn you, if you're not a golf fan this could be boring. But because this is a sports blog, I figured there should be enough golf enthusiasts a part of the TNIAAM community that it's worth sharing.

The idea of flying out to California for the 2012 U.S. Open was first floated at me by one of my best friends, Todd, a year and a half before actual play began at The Olympic Club.

Immediately, I was hooked. Not only was this an opportunity to knock something off my way-too-early-in-life bucket list, but it was going to be a reasonably cheap expedition as Todd's uncle, Gary, and aunt, Denny, lived in San Rafael, a city located within driving distance of the course, and we were going to volunteer, which gave us free entry to the greatest test in golf.

In case you do not know, or do not follow me on Twitter, since my retirement from baseball -- a sport I grew up obsessed with and played until my sophomore year of college -- my athletic outlet has been golf -- a game I played a lot in early middle school and stayed in touch with throughout the summers when my high school buddies, which included Todd, who played on the high school golf team, would come home and want to play on a regular basis.

Since I obtained a job at the local golf club three years ago, my passion for the game has grown. I play a lot. I watch it a lot. I talked about it a lot. Heck, I have read nearly every John Feinstein golf book there is. (And there is a lot of them.)

In fact, one of my favorite Feinstein golf books is Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black. The book documents the ins-and-outs (how the USGA chose the course, set up the course, how players qualify for it and what happened at it) of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage -- a course, ironically, Todd now plays frequently.

After I finished Open, I promised myself if I ever get an opportunity to witness an U.S. Open I would take it. A few years later, here was that opportunity.

Assuming you have no idea what volunteering at the U.S. Open entails, here's a quick rundown: First, you must sign up about a year in advance (there are thousands of wanna-be volunteers and its first-come first-serve), buy a uniform (I believe the price was $160) and be able to work about 12 hours during the week of the event.

Before doing work, a volunteer is designated a job, which he/she prioritizes -- one ranks a few jobs, and the USGA tries its best to place the volunteer into that job. I can't remember what job I prioritized, but I was selected to do corporate hospitality, while Todd was slotted in scorecards and pairing (or something like that).

(If you're wondering: what the hell is corporate hospitality? Basically, my job was to guard the entrance of this humongous USGA tent that featured corporate tables inside. If you had tickets to one of these tables, your company was nice enough to buy you unlimited food and beverage access. It was key that people that did not have these tickets did not get inside because, well, they cost a lot of money. So, my job was to guard the gate with a handful of other volunteers.

Meanwhile, Todd's job was to get to the course VERY early in the morning, drive around in a golf cart with his supervisor and deliver grouping and pairing sheets to every place that needed them. It was an easy job, which scheduled you for fours hours but actually worked a volunteer just 45 minutes. I, on the other hand, worked my full four-hour shift each of the my allotted four days. No worries, I am not bitter or anything.)

Our first working shifts was Tuesday morning during the practice rounds. Because of Todd's job we had to be at the course at 6 a.m. My first shift did not start until about 8 a.m., so I was able to wonder around the course and take in the amazing view that is a USGA manicured golf course with the sun coming up. If you're a fan of landscaping or grass mowing or nature, these type of views move you. And on that morning, it did.

For about an hour, I just sat in the Hole No. 18 grandstands and watched the ground's crew do their thing. Finally, after I realized I better move around a bit, I wondered up toward the Olympic Club's clubhouse where the driving range was located.

I checked out the putting green, stepped up into the grandstands of the driving range to watch players hit balls and just soaked it all in. This was really cool.

(I say this was cool not because there was a lot going on. It was really cool because there wasn't a lot going on. It was that perfect, early-morning time where things are still, quiet -- people are still whispering to each other -- and you are able to take everything in without distractions.)

After 20 minutes or so, I decided to move in the direction of my job. Nearing the edge of the stairs, I looked back over to the putting green and saw a larger, but still small crowd, hovering around the location. I thought that was a bit odd, until I took time to notice Tiger Woods had stepped onto the grounds.

There he was just putting. After a few minutes, he moved over to the driving range -- where I hopped back into the grandstands, right behind his tee box -- and bombed balls for another 20 minutes.

Golf is a funny game. At the amateur level one can get good at it. One can get good enough to where it is possible for you to think you could compete on the PGA. However, all of that thinking immediately goes away when you watch a PGA player, especially Tiger Woods, hit a golf ball.

To put it in perspective, if you have never seen a pro golfer hit a golf ball, professional golfers do not even play the same game as you or I do. It is at a totally different level of awesome. That is the only way I can describe what I witnessed that morning. I will remember that 30 minutes or so, of watching Tiger Woods just hit golf balls, until the day I die.

***

If you do not follow the game of golf closely -- maybe you play the game on the weekends and watch major championships -- you probably do not know the USGA, led by executive director Mike Davis, has a good sense of humor when it comes to putting together Round 1 and 2 groupings.

In 2012, the Thursday-Friday grouping that was getting the most buzz was Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

These groupings are usually announced a week prior to the start of the U.S. Open, so Todd and I knew exactly what we were doing after our Thursday morning shifts -- following that group.

Now, before this U.S. Open, I had never been to a professional golf event. This following a group without the help of a television camera thing was new to me. Luckily, I quickly figured out the best way to do it -- run!

Not kidding. If you want to watch a live round of Tiger Woods' you need to: 1) know the course; and 2) be willing to outrun the other spectators. This may not sound like fun to you, but this was a blast for Todd and I.

For a few hours, the two of us ran around The Olympic Club witnessing Watson, the Masters champion, and Mickelson, a four-time major champion, hack it like a regular weekend golfer; but Woods play was superb. And honestly, that is all we could of asked for, to watch the greatest golfer of our time play great golf. If Woods' iron play was a bit better that day he would have been tied for the first-round lead with Michael Thompson, who shot 4-under par. Woods finished Day 1 in a tie for second place (1-under par), a score which made my first day as a U.S. Open spectator memorable.

***

Attending a U.S. Open is not for everyone -- every husband that has a wife that does not like golf, I'd recommend leaving them at home -- but for those that like different sporting experiences or love golf it is a must-witness event. (I'll get to this more in a moment.)

If you ever decided to attend a U.S. Open, or maybe any golf event, one thing not different from any other sporting event is the amount of drunk people. And, honestly, I would argue there are more obnoxious drunk people at a U.S. Open than at a Syracuse football game.

At first, one may not think this would be the case because golf is suppose to be a gentleman's game. However, you then remember a few things about the game of golf: 1) there's A LOT of down time; 2) there's a lot of free or readily available beer/drink concession stands around the grounds; 3) there's a lot of douchebags that golf; and 4) if you're not good at golf and have no desire to get better than you are, your goal while out on the golf course is to get AS DRUNK AS POSSIBLE. (So, imagine what these people do when they're NOT playing golf.)

I am not saying I have not had my fair share of beers on the golf course -- again, if you follow me on Twitter you would know this. But man. It is crazy how drunk people get at these events.

As a volunteer in charge of guarding a corporate tent full of free booze, people will do a lot of crazy things to get drunk, cheaply.

We had one women, who was dressed to the nines but was BOMBED, crash through the gate of the corporate tent and then avoid security by sprinting into the bathroom and sneaking out a window, which humorously dropped down into a sand trap from an adjacent course. What did she want? Just another glass of wine.

Many people were also willing to pay a volunteer -- not a good amount of money -- so they can sneak into a tent of free booze. (See how that doesn't make sense?)

Anyway, besides the mass of drunk people, which somehow manage to stay quiet enough to not get kicked off the course, a large majority of the patrons at a U.S. Open are awesome. Almost every single one of them love golf and want to talk about it.

It is like attending a Syracuse basketball game, but with more people all rooting for the same thing. In this case, good golf.

I really enjoyed my experience as a volunteer, as the people I worked with were really nice and all they wanted to do was talk about the tournament, what was going on and what was their game plan to attack the golf course as a spectator.

Overall, I would highly recommend being a U.S. Open volunteer. I know, last year will not be my final time.

***

By Sunday, Todd and I had figured out how to move around The Olympic Club. We knew how to avoid the bottle necks of fans, what holes we could skip because the view was terrible and how to outrun everyone. (Just run faster.) Because of this, we were able to witness a large majority of play from the final pairing of Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk.

As the final group reached the back nine, we were able to watch each drive, shot and putt, as long as we stayed ahead of the traveling pack and found good spots, which was easier for Todd because he's 6-foot-4 and I am just under 5'9.

Little did we know, as we were setting up to catch the final group coming down the home stretch of holes, we should have been watching Webb Simpson, who I saw moving up the leaderboard and hit a stellar approach shot on one of the closing holes, but ignored because I was attached to the final pairing.

But, as luck would have it, we were a part of one of the, if not the, key moments of the tournament. It happened on Hole No. 16, a very long par 5, which at times during the week played as the longest par 5 in U.S. Open history.

Furyk stepped to the tee box, currently in a tie for first place, and yanked a drive straight left into the trees. At the time, Todd and I had positioned ourselves on the left side of the hole because we knew there was a bottle neck on the right side and it was easier to move around for the final holes.

Because of our positioning, and because we had audio headphones telling us what was going on, we knew Furyk had hit a terrible shot near our position, so we sprinted to the ball, which ended up near a stack of bushes only a few hundred yards down the left side.

I was one of three people first to the ball and was able to listen to Furyk's conversation with his caddie, Mike "Fluff" Cowan (who was Woods' caddie during the '97 Masters), and watched him punch out into the fairway. That tee shot and punch out was the end of Furyk, who lost by two strokes.

After the drama, I looked around and there was no Todd. Come to find out, he had somehow managed to fit his 6'4 frame into the bushes directly behind Furyk, who was no more than a foot or two away. Needless to say, if you ever get a chance to see that shot on TV, you can see Todd, right there, in the bushes as Furyk's U.S. Open dreams go down the drain.

In the end, it was Simpson, who put together back-to-back rounds of 2-under, 68, which was insane on that tough golf course, edging McDowell, who had a tournament-tying putt on Hole No. 18 miss, for his first major championship win.

Over history, the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club will not be remembered as one of the greatest, but to me it was an experience I will never forget. And it is an experience every sports fan should have.

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