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.
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.
It’s been exactly two years and two days since Phil Mickelson was relevant in a tournament that matters.
That was his outstanding duel with Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in the 145th British Open. He missed the cut in the 146th edition, and the 147th isn’t looking very promising either after a first round of 2-over-par 73.
That’s not to say Mickelson hasn’t made news in those two years, during which he accumulated zero top-20 finishes in six majors played. He ended a five-year winless drought at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, but for the most part his headlines haven’t been so much earned with fine play as extorted with sideshow stunts.
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.