There are a few elements essential to the character of a major championship.
It starts with the field. If the world’s best consider it optional, it’s not a major. Injuries or indictments are the only acceptable excuses for a player’s absence.
A weepy Jim Nantz retrospective helps too. Granted, his tendency to wring tears from even the most banal Tour stop has cheapened the currency, but viewers must be persuaded that they’re catching glimpses of a significant tournament between the commercials and fluffing of CEOs.
But nothing contributes more to the sense of a major than the golf course. The venue was a vital character in the plots of 2018’s majors. Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie were not incidental to the action.
Which may explain why – so far, at least – this major feels decidedly minor.
This ought to be a week that Shaun Micheel savors, returning to a major championship where he can wrap himself in gauzy memories of his finest achievement. Instead, he approaches the 100th PGA Championship with a familiar gnawing anxiety, conscious that every mention of his “once upon a time” fairytale victory in 2003 brings detractors eager to emphasize the “once.”
“I look forward to getting back, but I have some trepidation about the noise that’s going to start appearing on social media before too long,” he said last weekend.
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.
When you’ve had a season like that of Justin Thomas, it can be difficult to determine the most important metric amid such heady success. Unless you’re his dad.
Mike Thomas can recite chapter and verse on the accomplishments that are expected to earn his son the PGA Tour Player of the Year award: the five wins, the first major victory at the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup title, record-setting rounds (59 at the Sony Open, 63 at the U.S. Open), the Arnold Palmer Award for topping the money list, the 3½-1½ record in his first U.S. team appearance at the Presidents Cup.
The 2017 season has brought an avalanche of accolades for the 24-year-old, but none of those tops his old man’s list of what matters.