With Mickelson in spotlight, Furyk quietly enjoys success

June 15, 2007|By RICK MAESE

OAKMONT, Pa. — OAKMONT, Pa.-- --It's not so bad playing in the shadow. Jim Furyk grew up not far from here, had family and friends sprinkled in the gallery yesterday and had already won the U.S. Open once before. But he wasn't the one they were all here to see, and he wasn't the reason the gallery and media contingent following his playing group topped even that of Tiger Woods.

There was a single hole that seemed to quaintly illustrate the differences between the stoic Furyk and affable Phil Mickelson. On their third hole of yesterday's opening round -- the par 5 No. 12 hole -- Mickelson was bouncing back and forth like a teenager in a shopping mall. He was in the bunker on the left, in the one on the right and nearly needed Rand McNally as a caddie to find his way out of the rough.

Meanwhile, Furyk was quietly behind the green, blending into the background as the thick gallery looked right over him, watching Mickelson play whack-a-mole in the sand. Furyk chipped in for birdie from about 12 feet. He acknowledged the applause, issuing a curt wave, the kind you give when you accidentally cut someone off in traffic. No matter, though, because the crowd seemed more excited about Mickelson saving par.

It was like that all day, even though Furyk was the one who finished with a first-round 71, three shots off the lead, and Mickelson posted a 74. Even though Mickelson failed to notch a single birdie and even though Furyk managed to hit 11 fairways, the second most in yesterday's 156-man field.

But that's life on the Tour, where the one casting the shadow deals with the attention and the one playing in it can quietly post the better score.

Furyk's a heavyweight in his own right, but when Lefty is your playing partner, everyone else might as well be left out. Mickelson's more popular than chocolate right now and his following only seems to grow with each big loss, each new obstacle. And this week, playing with a wrist injury, he's got everyone from the grandmas to the weekend duffers following him closer than Doppler radar.

"He went to fix his wrist brace on our first tee on No. 10," Furyk said, "and I heard 50 clicks of the cameras. ... It was a little bit of a circus out there."

Did it distract Furyk, a no-nonsense competitor who stares down every single shot like a do-or-die business deal?

Come on, this is the same golfer who was standing on the 11th at Olympia Fields in 2003 when a streaker darted past. It could've been Rip Taylor in the buff for all Furyk cared; he didn't budge an inch, nailed the par putt and went on to win the Open championship.

Furyk and Mickelson are similar only on paper. Furyk came out of the University of Arizona in 1992, the same year Mickelson finished his heralded collegiate career at Arizona State. But while Mickelson graduated into a legitimate Tour darling -- ever watch him walk off the tee box? It's like that smile was tattooed on with permanent ink -- Furyk can be about as charming as a tree stump.

Strangely, though, that is exactly what's kind of charming about him.

Mickelson came to Oakmont Country Club this week and you'd have thought he was stricken was some rare incurable disease. He talked about his inflamed wrist in such a way that you wanted to dart to the church pew bunkers and pray they wouldn't have to amputate.

Furyk injured his wrist in 2000. You know what he said about it at the time? Not a thing. He just pulled out of the season-ending tournament, and everyone was left to wonder what had happened to him. (Here's what happened: Furyk was in Baltimore to watch his Steelers play the Ravens. Tossing a football around in the parking lot after the game -- a 9-6 Steelers win -- Furyk slipped, using his wrist to brace himself for the fall.)

Yesterday the fans followed Mickelson as though he were in the final group on Sunday. The rust on his game showed, though, and he played mostly mediocre golf, hitting just five fairways and ending the day in a tie for 57th place.

"I've got in my mind a way to shoot around par," Mickelson said, "but I didn't execute today."

And no doubt, wherever he goes, however he shoots, his followers will be there, wondering if he can redeem last year's disaster at Winged Foot, in which Mickelson lost a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole. And somewhere in the shadow is a guy who seemed to disappear in the aftermath of Mickelson's collapse.

Furyk also finished one shot back, tied for second after bogeying his final hole.

Of course, he doesn't mind that he's here this week making his bid for redemption alongside the Tour's rock star. Furyk's been in this game long enough to know that he'd gladly trade the biggest cheers for the lowest scores.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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