A homily popular among PGA Tour members is that they eat only what they kill, and that unlike other athletes they must perform to get paid. It’s never actually been true, at least for the top players—sponsors incentivize excellence, but they don’t withhold payment for missed cuts—and certainly not in this era of the Player Impact Program and the coming guaranteed money events, both of which will compensate regardless of on-course results.
Professional golf is a club whose members can feast on past glories long after they’ve started cashing social security checks. That’s why the PGA Tour Champions exists. It’s an honorarium masquerading as competition. Only the middle and lower ranks of PGA Tour players subsist on what they butcher with birdies. And yet there are some who would see those guys go hungrier still.
This ought to have been an outstanding week for Miller Brady. The PGA Tour Champions, of which Brady is president, began its season in Hawaii with more fanfare than usual thanks to the debut of Hall of Famer Ernie Els. Nor is Els the only major winner who will slather on the Bengay and saddle up for the senior circuit in 2020. Jim Furyk and Mike Weir both turn 50 on May 12, with Rich Beem following in August.
Yet for all the promise this year holds for Brady, it presents a problem too: Phil Mickelson.
On the second Sunday in April every year, Augusta National feels less like a golf course than an operating table, upon which men are laid bare and probed for frailties not readily apparent to the naked eye. And no facility in the world does a more thorough job of diagnosing a faint heart, a deficit of intestinal fortitude, an absence of daring.
Those aren’t ailments that will appear on an X-ray or a doctor’s chart, but the final round of the Masters routinely exposes each and every one of them.
Of course, the recent vulnerabilities of Tiger Woods have been more obvious: physical injury, swing woes, personal turmoil — each a test more daunting than anything Amen Corner can pose. By comparison, the crucible of the back nine on Sunday afternoon at the Masters must have seemed a welcome relief.
Rich Beem knows a little something about what U.S. Open course setups can do to a man. The 2002 PGA Championship winner has played seven of them.
“My record is six missed cuts, one made cut, finished DFL,” he said with a laugh. “I know a thing or two about getting my head bashed in by U.S. Open golf courses.”
It was Sunday at Shinnecock Hills, but most of the conversation was still about Saturday and Phil Mickelson’s slapshot stunt on the 13th green. Beem gazed out on the first fairway and talked about how brutal U.S. Open beatdowns can be. He hasn’t forgotten the frustration that comes with playing greens so hard and fast they seem better suited to hosting a Stanley Cup than a golf tournament.
It was with the 7,277th stroke of his U.S. Open career that Phil Mickelson finally conceded he will never win the only major championship missing from his mantelpiece.
That was the stroke with which he intentionally hit a moving ball on the 13th hole of Saturday’s third round at Shinnecock Hills, a casual, contemptuous swipe that all but acknowledged the quest had finally broken him.
“I’ve had multiple times when I’ve wanted to do that, and I finally did,” he told Fox Sports’ Curtis Strange afterward, sounding for all the world like an entitled, petulant child who has just been busted for torching his parents house.
In that single stroke, Mickelson’s carefully constructed veneer fell away, the years of pained diplomacy and outward optimism with which he greeted every failed, painful tilt at the national Open. It was a quiet scream, seen but not heard.
In an era when relationships among the world’s best golfers lean more toward hugs than hostility, Paul Azinger is an unapologetic throwback to a time when Tour pros would think twice about even giving each other a Heimlich.
He doesn’t play much these days, but Azinger’s love of competition – the honor of it, as much as the thrill – remains undimmed. If only some of today’s players felt as competitive as the guy in the booth at the 118th U.S. Open Championships.
It should come as no surprise that the Fox Sports lead analyst is openly hostile to backstopping, the controversial “helping hand” practice that has been the subject of heated debate on the grounds at Shinnecock Hills.
Heartbreak at the Masters is like a doomed first love affair, the one whose ache never quite dulls. Sure, players can go on to find love in other places — the Opens, a PGA Championship — but the pain of a loss at Augusta National doesn’t ever fully disappear.
Some of that is owed to familiarity. As the Open returns to Carnoustie this summer, Jean Van De Velde will field a flurry of calls to autopsy his 1999 collapse. But at least the Frenchman only has to relive his fiasco every decade or so when the rota returns to the scene of le horreur.
Fail at Augusta National and the ghosts will start whispering every year on the drive down Magnolia Lane.