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|| News Item: Posted 2008-06-30

The Greatest Event I Have Ever Shot
Sports Illustrated staffer Robert Beck looks back at the incredible experience that was the 2008 U.S. Open.

By Robert Beck, Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated
I have spent a lot of time thinking about writing this piece. I have even started it a couple of times. But trying to describe the incredible experience that was the 2008 U.S. Open on the South Course at Torrey Pines is more confounding than covering the tournament. There are tales within tales and stories that will grow grander, perhaps becoming mythical, over time. So, in advance, please forgive me if weave through this yarn as crookedly as I might play a round of golf.

I live in Carlsbad, about fifteen minutes north of the Torrey Pines Golf Course and being the local staffer, started my coverage of the U.S. Open many months ago. I shot one piece of course photography in infrared over six or seven days which never made it to print. I did another piece covering the last day the public played the course before the USGA shut it down for fine-tuning. That ran in our Golf Plus U.S. Open preview edition. I also wrangled up a few assistants, editors and runners for our staff and various other visiting media. Our runners for the week were to be my 14-year-old son, Bubby, and his best pal and neighbor, Madigan. We scouted the course a couple of times before the tournament and they were amazed at how soft and smooth the fairways were (Is this grass real?). They were equally amazed at how thick and deep the rough was and the immense size of the course.

One scout day we were all alone out on the course save for a few workers. The stands were finished, ropes in place and the tent world on the North Course was complete. Only the media hordes, fans and players were missing. The boys could not imagine what they had gotten themselves into or what they would witness, in a both hectic and intimate way, during the week and a day that would become the Open for the ages.

Kojo Kinno and I were at the course on Monday of Open Week to check in. We received our credentials and freebies (a pair of Maui Jim shades that look good on my wife), our ever-important lunch tickets and secured our lockers. We loaded our Nikon gear in: Two sets of remotes (one with a fish-eye to go on 18 with the pole cam and a 17-24 to go up in the TV tower at the 4th green, both on D3 bodies), another pole cam mounted with a fish on a D300, a 600, 400, 70-200 and 24-70 all on D3 bodies.

We shot some tests on the remotes and transmitted them to the office to make sure we were on the same page with our editor, Miriam Marseu. Tuesday we walked a bit of the course and coordinated the "digital work flow" with our on-site editor/tech guru Greg Choat. Tuesday night Bub and I entertained a few out-of-towners at Juanita's, the legendary Mexican walk-up in Leucadia.

Wednesday morning we treated Greg and east coaster Sports Illustrated staffer Simon Bruty to a surf lesson at Tippers in Cardiff. Both boys actually stood up on a few waves. Being landlocked after some recent ear surgery I coached and videotaped from shore --- Watch for the movie in a theatre near you soon. Kojo was the in water safety patrol. The guys rode a few all the way to the beach between face plants and worked up quite an appetite. The reward was a trip to VGs Bakery, the premier doughnut shop in the galaxy. We plowed through a glazed dozen and then headed down the coast to Torrey. We introduced Madigan to the gang and planned "runner's" routes and shooting strategies for Thursday. After dinner at Roberto's we headed for bed. It would be early starts and long days this week.

Madigan and Kojo met at my house at 5:50AM on Thursday morning. The first thing we did at the course, as would become the routine, was to set up the remote at four then the remote at 18. The first players teed off around 7. Tiger, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott formed a super group that teed off at 8:20. They sold 43,000 tickets for each day of the tournament. I guarantee you that each one of those fans followed Tiger, Phil and AS during some part of their round.

I shot the first green through the trees with the pole cam and the second tee box from behind with the same rig. Then I left the course...To attend Bub's middle school promotion. I returned to Torrey minus Bub (who gets their first day of work off?) in time to grab lunch and cover a few afternoon groups. The first day went well. KK helped Madigan run cards in the morning, transmissions were flawless and our web gallery looked good.

Friday we slept in --- 'till 6AM. The boys were ready to go by 6:15 and we ran through the remote routine, ate a small breakfast before a light morning shoot. Bub got his feet wet running cards with Madigan and was still excited to be there when lunch rolled around.

After dining Kojo and I tackled the super group. It was a long hack through the crowds but still fun. There was so much energy running through Torrey. Everyone was rooting for either Tiger of Phil and they were quite vocal about it. There weren't a lot of great photo opportunities the first two days and the weather didn't help as the June gloom hung around most of each day.

Saturday found Tiger near the top of the leader board and the boys sleeping until 8 or so. Of course, we hadn't gotten home until 10PM or so each of the previous evenings (we lost Bub one night when he decided to tour the Lodge by himself). My job was to "float" for the day and work a couple of tee boxes that the editors liked. We did a little pole cam through the morning while Al Tielemans and Simon covered Tiger and Fred Vuich and John Biever covered various groups.

Kojo and I were shooting the 15th tee and Rocco Mediate when we heard a gigantic roar from 13. We knew what that meant: Tiger had done something spectacular. He had indeed birdied with a monster-twisting putt and following with a fist pump clinic. It seemed to kick start him. He had been battling through soreness in his surgically repaired knee and his game and stamina and been in question all week.

Many times during the week he would wince after strokes and lean on his club for support. The crowd winced with him. I hooked onto Tiger's group at 15. Kojo went ahead to man the remote at 18 and shoot the final 5 or 6 groups coming through.

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Tiger banged a one hopper off the stick that dropped in for an impossible birdie on 17 on Saturday.
Tiger was again in trouble on 17, against the ropes and in the rough with his tee shot. He went rough to greenside rough with his second shot. Our shot of Tiger just off the green was horribly backlit but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. We did and Tiger banged a one hopper off the stick that dropped in for an impossible birdie. He was embarrassed he made it and smirked all the way to the hole, eventually shrugging his shoulders along the way.

The crowd at 18 was beyond capacity. The sun had disappeared from the green. Tiger looked worn and his approach had left him with a very long downhill putt. Tiger made his reads and struck the ball. Every person around the green and lining the fairway, every person in the stands and lining the balconies of the Lodge stood. The balled rolled, bounced and rolled some more…all the way into the hole. Steve Williams ran with his fists in the air towards his man. The crowd went nuts. Tiger, out of gas, simply raised his club and smiled. He had played his way into Sunday's final group (with Lee Westwood).

Twice today he had willed incredible putts into the can. Once he had pulled a rabbit out of his pocket and thrown it in the cup. There is only one Tiger but, playing in obvious pain, did he have enough to be in the lead after 18 more holes on the longest U.S. Open course ever?

Sunday was a bit different for us. No Kojo. He was on his way to Brown Field in San Diego to ride the Metlife Blimp for the day. I hired Amber Matsumoto to help me. You would recognize her as one of Jon Soohoo's crack Dodger photo staff. She helped get the remotes up and I told her what we were looking for out of them, as she would be the trigger person for each.

Then there was a lot of nervous kicking around until Tiger and Lee teed off of one. Al was the rabbit, covering every group but Tiger's. Fred, Simon, John and I were to follow Tiger's group. We all watched Kojo and the blimp float in and out of the fog. The crowds were monstrous and boisterous once again. With help from Amber, I shot the first three holes with the pole cam. I could not see over or through the crowds so she would place herself in position to see the player and myself.

We worked out hand signals as to when I could shoot or couldn't. I put a lot of trust in her...This was her first golf tournament. She was perfect. Our pole shot of Lee Westwood hitting out of the gallery on one was the opener to out Golf Plus feature. The day was a blur. The sun came out for good around the fourth hole. Amber fired the remote at the four green then kept up with me swapping the 400mm to 600mm whenever I needed them.

Madigan and Bub ran the cards like clockwork. Kojo's blimp wandered the sea breeze above us. At 15 I sent my 600 in with Madigan and Amber to the remote at 18. I trailed the man in red with the other 45000 folks at Torrey. He was hanging on. By the time he had reached the tee box at 18 he was a stroke off the leader, Rocco Mediate. Both he and Lee Westwood could force a Monday play-off with birdies on the 72nd hole of the week. Tiger winced for the last time on Sunday when he slightly pulled his drive into the left fairway bunker. He then pushed his second shot into the right rough well short of the lake fronting the 18th green.

His third shot found the green top right of the pin. I hustled up the left side of the fairway and heard my son calling to me from the edge of the grandstands. "I'll wait for your cards here," he said. Nobody was watching us by that point so I pulled him in with me. I told him to stay out of everyone's way and against the stands ---he'd have one of the best seats in the house. And he had earned it.

I set up at the top edge of the lake. Tiger would be putting almost straight down the barrel of my 400. I had decided to shoot semi tight and vertically as I was covered by my loose horizontal on the pole cam. Westwood proceeded to miss his birdie try. Tiger took his time studying the green and the lines of his putt. I snapped a few as he did so.

The crowd grew very still and very quiet. As I framed Tiger in my lens I could not see the hole. I would rely on his eyes and body expression to tell me what was happening. I think the entire crowd inhaled at once as Tiger addressed the ball. Then he putted. Sounds so simple doesn't it? I shot a few as the ball rolled out of the frame. Then I waited --- shooting raw and jpeg tend to eat a cards way to the buffer very quickly! I watched. Tiger's eyes widened a bit. Then he raised his club towards the hole...his eyes widened a bit more.

Photo by Kojo Kinno / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Kojo Kinno / Sports Illustrated

Kojo's Leading Off that ran in Sports Illustrated of Tiger's birdie put on 18 on Sunday shot from the blimp.
Then all at once the world went crazy. Tiger pumped like never before. Kojo later said he could hear the roar of the crowd IN THE BLIMP. Every person watching on TV jumped out of their seats and screamed. People did not leave the 18th. They just kept cheering until Tiger had walked to the scorer's tent. Then they just kept buzzing. We had just watched the best U.S. Open ever. And it was not done yet. Tiger had played through the weekend on one leg and had managed one more miracle --- or whatever you care to call it --- on the last hole on Sunday.

There would be 18 more holes to play on Monday.

All of the cards were rounded up and transmitted. Plans were made. Fred and I would shoot the play-off, the boys would both stay and run for us. Kojo was done in the blimp and would be back to help me. Kojo, by the way, was already back at my home office transmitting his Sky King pictures. He had one of Tiger that was amazing and made it into the magazine as a Leading Off. That made his day of drifting around in the fog, bearing the TV cameraman filling up several Gatorade bottles (if you know what I mean) and hanging out of a cramped blimp gondola to make pictures worth every second.

Monday found us reporting to the course a bit later than usual. We actually had on-site parking for the day and we were not putting up the remotes. We were on a very tight deadline for the magazine and there wouldn't be time to get the cards from the remotes. Besides, nobody's "high" image was going to beat Kojo's.

The day was to be pretty straightforward editorial shooting. No need to worry about beauty shots. No backswings through the trees. Just Tiger --- and Rocco.

Again, much of the day was a blur. Tiger was ahead early then gave it all back and then some. He made a great save from the rough on 15 but came away still one stroke behind Rocco. I remember walking up 16 with Jon Cuban and saying I wasn't sure Tiger had anything left in the tank. I have never ever written Tiger off, but I was pretty close here.

Rocco had stepped up and steadied himself through the back nine. He had a surprising number of fans in his pocket.... And he was one up. Tiger's putt for bird on 16 was a club raiser that kissed the lip but didn't fall. Seventeen was another par for both. One last hole for Tiger. One last shot at the championship where he had already sunk two extraordinary putts on consecutive days.

Rocco had been playing safe on 18 and when he pulled his tee shot into the bunker he was forced to play it safe once again. Especially after Tiger striped his tee shot a mile straight down the pipe. Rocco had a chance for a birdie but that's all it was. Tiger the Magnificent worked his mojo one more time to the delight of the 25,000 ringing the 18th. Time for sudden death.

The first sudden death hole was seven. The entire crowd moved en masse over to the seven fairway and green. Rocco was in trouble from the get-go. His drive found a fairway bunker then his second shot was far left of the green next to the grandstand. He was left to take a drop and make the best of it. Tiger could have closed it out with his own bird and dropped to his knees as his putt just missed. No matter. Rocco missed his last chance and Tiger had won.

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Tiger birdies 18 on Sunday. This is Beck's wide remote of this great moment.
The trophy ceremony was the usual botched affair, especially since the sound system didn't work but no one had left the grounds. They had stayed to cheer Tiger some more and watched as his one-year-old daughter made him forget about his knee for the first time in a week. They watched him kiss his trophy. They watched him well up a bit as he said he never thought about giving up. They waited until he left before they thought about leaving. And then they went home and, like anyone else who had witnessed the event, started talking story about the greatest golf tournament they had ever seen won by the greatest golf player that has ever lived.

I can't remember the time frame exactly, but Tiger won just in time to make the closing of our magazine. Almost all of the Golf Plus was done but there was a mad rush to finish the main magazine game story. The cover and the Leading Off came from The Putt on Sunday. The rest of the images in the game story came from Monday's play-off, a bit unusual for us as we, out of necessity, fill in as many holes as we can before a finish so the deadline doesn't kill us altogether.

We knew what was running before we had finished our shakes and double-doubles at In-n-Out. Kojo and to inject a few energy drinks to make it home. The boys went to hang out by Madigan's pool for a bit. I flopped on the sofa and dozed off for a bit. It had been a long week. I turned on the tube just when Madigan and Bub came back over. ESPN Classic was replaying the day's play-off. Believe it or not, and none of us are real golf fans mind you, we sat there and watched the whole thing one more time. Yeah we did.

As some sort of postscript: We all know now how damaged Tiger's knee was. Surgery to fully repair his left leg has effectively canceled the rest of the golf year. In addition to elevating his epic victory to mythical status we now realize that the 2008 U.S. Open is the last time Tiger will play for quite a while. Rehab will last into the '09 PGA season and maybe until the 2009 Masters. If you were on another planet that week you REALLY missed it! If you were there or even if you watched it on TV…even if you just watched the highlights over and over…you will never forget it. It certainly was the best event I have ever shot.

(Robert Beck is a staff photographer with Sports Illustrated and a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter.)

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