On Sunday at the U.S. Open, Mackenzie Hughes hit what might be the most memorable shot in Canadian golf history. Unfortunately, not in a good way.
Hughes, a journeyman from Hamilton, entered the day tied for the lead. You’d have to go back to Mike Weir to remember a guy who reminded you so much of Mike Weir.
Within a couple of holes of his start, the pack had come back to Hughes. And what a pack. It felt like every big name in golf was in it at some point.
Nonetheless, and despite having been talked over all day by the American broadcast crew, Hughes was still slugging halfway through his round.
And then the tree.
It wasn’t the famous pine that gives Torrey Pines Golf Course its name. Just a regular pine-like tree of some sort. Nothing especially knotty or low slung. And it wasn’t in Hughes’s way. It was well off to one side of the 11th fairway.
But you couldn’t say that Hughes was totally to blame for what happened. Some things aren’t anyone’s fault.
Hughes hit his tee shot wide, in the tree’s direction. The ball hit the tree. It fell out of the tree and hit a cart path. It bounced off the cart path and back into the tree. Then it stayed there.
The crowd pointed up incredulously from underneath the tree. At some point, an official showed up to ascertain if the ball everyone was pointing at was, in fact, Hughes’s. Like there are a lot of golf balls just sitting in trees.
A one-stroke penalty led inexorably to a double bogey, which in turn led to Hughes falling off the edge of the top page of the leaderboard.
Hughes started the day leading the U.S. Open. He ended it tied for 15th. The only thing that went badly wrong in between was the tree. That’s how hard it is to win a major.
I guess it could have been worse. Hughes could have been Bryson DeChambeau.
DeChambeau, an enormous slab of beef with a protractor, came into this tournament freighted with expectation. At the midpoint of his round on Sunday, he was alone in the lead. The news alerts were being readied. Then it started to go wrong. And it got worse. And worse. And then much worse.
In the space of an hour, DeChambeau turned a one-stroke lead into a nine-stroke deficit.
Or, by far the most wrenching of all, Louis Oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen started the day in the lead pairing with Hughes. While Hughes floundered, Oosthuizen persevered. Huge names were flopping all over the place, but he alone remained competent.
Oosthuizen has one major – a British Open – but he is notorious as his generation’s most successful loser. Coming into this weekend, he had placed second in five majors.
You see where this is going.
Late in the day, Oosthuizen trailed by one. At the 17th, all he needed to do was put his ball on the fairway or, failing that, to the right. Middle or the right. Middle or the right. Oosthuizen put it into the penalty area on the left. And that was that.
Guess where he finished?
(If you’re inclined to feel bad for the South African, console yourself with the fact that Oosthuizen’s second-place cheque is for US$1.35-million.)
That brings us to the day’s only fortunate soul – the winner, Jon Rahm.
Rahm is located somewhere between the shifting trends of golf. He’s a big man, but a little jigglier than is currently fashionable.
In a sport that increasingly favours cyborgs who are mind-melded with their yardage books, Rahm is a feel golfer. That’s a nice way of saying that when things are going well for him, they go really well. And when they are going badly, stay out of club-swinging distance.
Rahm’s round on Sunday was a long way from perfect, but it was inspired. In particular, two nearly impossible long-distance putts on the 17th and 18th.
While Oosthuizen was blowing it, a camera followed Rahm as he walked around backstage. It was only after they’d caught him for the third or fourth time that you realized that though he was walking in a great hurry, he wasn’t going anywhere.
When Rahm eventually did win it, he was standing on the practice green, pretending he believed it might still go to a playoff. Rahm was so discombobulated, he hugged Phil Mickelson before he reached for his wife.
“I’m a big believer in karma,” Rahm said afterwards. “After what happened a couple of weeks ago, I stayed positive.”
Two weeks ago, Rahm finished the third round of the Memorial with a rock-solid, six-shot lead. As he left the course, he was told he’d tested positive for coronavirus. Along with the glory, he also lost a million-and-a-half bucks.
“I was never resentful for what happened,” Rahm said. “And I don’t blame anybody.”
Which is an under-the-table way of blaming someone. Apparently – and maybe understandably – Rahm believes he was owed something after getting the shaft.
Believing that sort of thing is true does a small disservice to the Mackenzie Hugheses of the world.
This was the biggest day in Hughes’s working life. Despite the collapse, it’s by far the best he’s done at a major. It’s possible he takes this experience, computes it for weeks or years and comes back to win one of these things.
It’s probably more possible he never ends up in this situation again.
That doesn’t negate anything Hughes did this week. He was in it with the very best in the game. In that situation, it takes some luck to push you over the hump. Hughes got a ton, all of it bad. They’ll be replaying that tree shot for the rest of his career. Hopefully, he comes to see the humour in it.
Nothing in life is fated. And every disappointment, even the disasters, is just a good story waiting for enough time to pass so that it can be told.