Las Vegas exists to distort reality, whether briefly enough to separate cocksure gamblers from their chip stacks or long enough to market a bejeweled Liberace as every housewife’s dream. So it was with The Match, in which two men who share a genuine antipathy circled each other like a pair of chummy middle managers at a company holiday party, exchanging compliments that made up in diplomacy what they lacked in sincerity, and betraying nothing more belligerent than an eye-roll.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka conducted themselves as any two strangers randomly paired for a Friday game might, piloting separate carts and saying little beyond “Nice putt” and “That’s good.” The last time Vegas witnessed two high-profile men be so taciturn about their common business, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were running the Strip.
For someone who just a few years ago was perilously proximate to a federal insider trading prosecution, Phil Mickelson has developed a commendable interest in regulatory processes.
This week he’s been in a Twitter snit about a new rule announced by the game’s governing bodies that would reduce the maximum length of a club from 48 inches to 46. That’s about 1.5 inches shorter than Mickelson’s typical gamer driver and shorter still than one he used to win a sixth major championship in May.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” he acerbically tweeted, echoing a well-worn adage from Forrest Gump’s momma. “Really though, are the amateurs trying their best to govern the professional game the stupid ones? Or the professionals for letting them?”
Who among us can’t empathize with an aging stag shorn of shaft length as he tries to keep up with the young bucks? But note how Mickelson repeatedly disparages the governing body’s staff as stupid people doing stupid things. You’d be forgiven for assuming it must have been the USGA’s CEO, Mike Whan, who was taken for $500,000 by a mobbed-up Michigan bookie, or that it was his secretary who hit a moving ball in a U.S. Open then tried to brazen it out as clever strategy.
By the time Steve Stricker makes his Ryder Cup captain’s picks after next week’s Tour Championship, the COVID-compromised qualification process to determine his troops will have lasted longer than the Siege of Leningrad—924 days to be exact. But Stricker will be announcing more than just six additional names on his roster. His choices will reveal whether the U.S. is investing in its future stars or remains hostage to a faded legend who isn’t eager to cede center stage.
The relationship between professional athletes and the press is fraught by its very nature, moreso in the wake of Naomi Osaka suggesting that media questioning is injurious to her mental health. However, at this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, two of golf’s biggest stars seemed more concerned about damage to their pride and ego.
The Crown Prince is nothing if not opportunistic, whether waiting until a dissident journalist enters the Istanbul consulate to have him dismembered or choosing an event with 20 club pros in the field to make his final pitch promising top players that they don’t have to share riches with also-rans.
On the eve of the 103rd PGA Championship, the chatter at Kiawah Island is less about potential winners of the year’s second major than a possible splintering of the (men’s) game if a sufficient number of elite players sign-on with the Saudi-financed Super League Golf for fees reported at $30 million or more. It’s a controversial concept that rumbled along for years in near-secrecy without gaining traction, but which seems now to be hurtling toward the decisive moment like an executioner’s sulthan.
It’s been 25 years since Medalist Golf Club last appeared on national television, when Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf pitted then-world No. 1 Nick Price against Greg Norman, the world No. 2 and founder of the newly opened club.
On May 24, the exclusive Florida enclave hosts another made-for-TV affair with Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning taking on Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.
It was after the 2014 Ryder Cup debacle in Scotland — a week during which Phil Mickelson’s most effective shots came during the losing team’s press conference when he targeted skipper Tom Watson — that the American team decided to crowdsource the captaincy.
The PGA of America created an oft-mocked task force to reverse U.S. fortunes in the biennial event. Another undeclared objective was to ensure that future players wouldn’t be denied hugs or high fives from some grizzled legend who thought the only inspiration they needed was to see the Stars & Stripes run up the pole.
The only item on a menu is always in high demand, so it’s a sign of our times that even a picky gourmand will greedily consume another manufactured McNuggets offering that sees Tiger and Phil impersonate actual rivals for those of us willing to trade nourishment for entertainment.
It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.
The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.
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.
In golf there are moments that define a player’s career, then moments that define his character.
Ernie Els has been favored with an abundance of the former. Like the U.S. Open at Oakmont a quarter-century ago, when he emerged as champion after 92 holes, needing extra innings on top of an 18-hole playoff. Or the four-way shootout at Muirfield in ’02, when he claimed the Open Championship. There were a couple other majors, 19 victories in all on the PGA Tour, more than 70 worldwide.
Only Phil Mickelson can challenge Els for the right to be called the second greatest golfer of the last 25 years.
There were major disappointments, too. A handful of nearlys at the Masters, a few at the PGA Championship, a gutting playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon in the ’04 Open. That one hurt. Legends aren’t supposed to lose to guys named Todd who bunt hybrids.
But one moment stands out as the measure of Theodore Ernest Els. It came three years ago at Augusta National, when his Masters ended after about 15 minutes, on the very first hole of the tournament. He six-putted from six feet.
The criteria for selecting U.S. Ryder Cup captains often has seemed to magnify qualities that are barely relevant to the task, emphasizing personal achievements of an individual over personality attributes that might galvanize a team.
Twenty-eight men have led America into competition since Walter Hagen commanded the first team in Massachusetts in 1927. Every single one of those 28 captains won a major championship during his career. A winning record as a Ryder Cup player once mattered too, but that was when points were easier to come by for Americans. It’s not so important these days since the U.S. record over the last three decades has impoverished the résumés of most candidates for the captaincy.
The most popular punching bag in golf finally said “no mas.”
Mike Davis has announced that he’ll no longer oversee golf course setup at U.S. Opens to better focus on his role as CEO of the U.S. Golf Association. It’s a development sure to disorient those accustomed to j’accusing Davis for every shortcoming – real or imagined – at the national open.
Only in the city that promoted Mayweather-McGregor as a fair fight and Liberace as a sex symbol could Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be considered rivals. “The Match” is fresh evidence that Las Vegas can distort any reality just long enough to separate a rube from his billfold.