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Column: Savoring San Diego and a new America at the old U.S. Open

By Zachary Michael Jack, Contributor

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Like many Gen X golf nuts, I grew up pumped full of the sense, or nonsense, that the nation's best sporting days were behind me. There'd never be another golfer like the Golden Bear, my Boomer dad claimed, on PGA Tour Sunday afternoons together in front of the boob tube. Too bad you couldn't have seen Jack in his prime, he sighed, before his bum back and Cadillacs.

Tiger Woods - U.S. Open
The Open brought together the greatest golfer of his generation, with a vintage course, Torrey Pines, and a vibrant destination: San Diego.
Tiger Woods - U.S. OpenSan Diego Skyline

Oddly, I heard the same Chicken Little rhetoric about the once great West - one-time prime vacation spots spoiled forever, my father's generation claimed, by their own success - L.A., Tucson, San Diego, Santa Fe, San Fran. And along with them went their all-but-outmoded or foreign-bought classic layouts: Riviera, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point.

Fortunately, the 108th U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South disproved those notions for Boomers, Slackers and Echo Boomers alike. This Father's Day event, so good for golf in so many ways, proved greatness contemporaneous rather than has-been, as it joined the greatest golfer of his or arguably any generation, Tiger Woods, with a vintage, public golf course, Torrey Pines, and added, as a side, a still-vibrant American destination: San Diego.

It took just one look at the mixed ridership of San Diego's excellent and efficient mass transit system, the M.A.T., on the busy afternoons of the Open to witness a new kind of American diversity taking shape ... not shopworn '80s tokenism and political correctness, but Gringos, ex-flower children, Hispanics, American Indians and visor-wearing, corn-feed Anglos with their U.S. Open lanyards and throbbing sunburns happily sharing seats on the same trolley.

And the U.S. Open wasn't the only show in town in what is anything but a one-horse, has-been Western burg. An Open spectator could spend early Saturday morning at the Wooden Boat Festival at Point Loma enjoying a gratis ride in a handmade gondola while hearing the salty strains of a pirate band, mid morning at the ma-and-apple-pie San Diego Fair and late afternoon soaking in the cool, Pacific breezes at Torrey Pines.

But San Diego's real energy and diversity shone through at a most unlikely place - a golf course no less, Torrey Pines - where young and old joined Tiger's Troop and Rocco's Retinue for a duel for the ages. In the gallery, fathers turned to sons with the old glint in their eye to declare history in the making. Satisfied couples sighed out loud that there was no better place and no better time to spend their anniversary. And young ladies ogled the new generation of catwalk-worthy golfers like Carmen Villegas and Sergio Garcia resplendent in their golfing zoot suits.

Not so many years ago, our fathers said, all personality escaped the game like air from a deflated balloon ... the young PGA Tour guns played colorlessly, marching down the fairways like drones. Gone, our dads sighed, were important eccentrics with nicknames like the Walrus, Boom-Boom and Fuzzy. And then - surprise - along came Villegas, (a.k.a. "Spidey"), Mickelson ("Lefty") and a cadre of bag-slinging, celeb caddies with monikers like "Fluff" and "Bones."

Who knew? Today's golf, unlike yesterday's Oldsmobile, turned out to be anything but forgettable.

And as for the myth of the mothballed, mossback golf courses of yesteryear, the rainbow coalition of onlookers at the 108th U.S. Open shot holes in that theory, too. Old Man Par and Torrey Pines conspired to leave just two golfers, Rocco and Tiger, under par at the end of regulation play.

On the course, the 158th-ranked golfer in the world, raised a pitching wedge from Arnie Palmer's home in Latrobe, Pa., knocked clubheads against America's newest and greatest post-racial sports hero and California native, Tiger Woods. And the sunny crowd, perfectly split, cheered both men in turn, not with the old, black and white, "less filling ... tastes great" paradigm of the 1980s, but with the enthusiastic embrace of a new Millennium - applause shared equally around.

And by Monday afternoon, as the 90th hole turned into the sudden-death 91st, and fans reacted to Woods' birdie by sprinting from the 18th green to the first playoff hole at the seventh, the old Technicolor footage of Arnie's Army was in the air, back when all was right with the world, and the King from Latrobe reigned in heaven, back before "Fat Jack" Nicklaus seemingly ruined everything.

And so this greatest of 21 century Opens marked another revolution, another breathtaking quarter turn of the ball rolling towards its ultimate end. With cries of "Rocco for President" splitting the maritime layer just as they once did for Arnie, the new echoed the old. But this Tiger Woods, West Coast Open heralded something new: An America that looks as much like San Diego as Latrobe; an America where tradition and tolerance come to the first tee evenly matched.

Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

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