For Ricky Elliott, 2018 ended much as it began: going downhill fast.
In December, that meant a maiden ski trip to Colorado. January hadn’t been as much fun for Elliott, the longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka. Just a few holes into the year in Hawaii, a wrist injury benched his man for three months.
“It was worrying. I honestly thought if we could play at all this year it would be a bonus,” Elliott said. “It was one of those dark areas where there was no timetable on his comeback. It was a long period of not knowing if you’re going to have a job. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.”
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.
The Ryder Cup had its share of weekend thrills for fans, but for players the drama began much earlier. Tuesday evening, to be exact. And not at Le Golf National but seven miles away at the Trianon Palace hotel, which was home to both the U.S. and European teams. That’s when officials from the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) arrived unannounced to conduct random drug tests.
The players had reason to be surprised. It was the first time drug tests were administered at a Ryder Cup. That it happened in Paris should be less surprising. The French take their anti-doping laws seriously. That’s why Lance Armstrong now owns as many Tour de France victories as Jack Nicklaus.
You can learn a lot about how a president governs by watching his golf game. Bill Clinton, for example, had a reputation for cheating. George W. Bush rushed along, blind to the bigger picture. Gerald Ford was endearingly hapless. And then there’s President Donald J. Trump.
I played with him just once, on August 20, 2010, and it was quite an experience. At the time, I worked at Golf Magazine and had been invited to join the editor in chief and a corporate executive at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Back then, Trump was overly solicitous of golf media, eager to influence their course ranking lists to include his properties. The character I saw and heard over those few hours has since become a familiar part of public life.
Golf has marketed the virtue of its players for so long that you’d be forgiven for assuming PGA Tour cards come with certificates of moral rectitude.
Until we recently began living under par, “These Guys Are Good” was recited with an almost evangelical fervor. The slogan wasn’t intended to refer only to the quality of play evident on Tour, but also to the not so readily apparent qualities of its members: sportsmanship, humanitarianism, charity.
That branding has two potential snares: Even a trivial divergence from the righteous narrative is magnified, and it denies golf fans the manufactured hatred that thrives in other sports. After all, it’s tough to hate a guy when you only hear about his decency and kindness to puppies.
American victories in the Ryder Cup, rare as they are, seldom get the recognition they deserve. There’s always some celebratory chest thumping, of course, but one can only cheer so much when you’ve been told that defeating Europe should be a foregone conclusion anyway.
When the champagne is drained, the trophy is largely forgotten for two years. But on the more regular occasions of an American loss, those two years are filled with autopsies and blame games. The aftermath of 2018 will be no different.
Paris will not have witnessed so many disheartened elite leaving town since the Bastille was stormed.
It’s testament to the enduring appeal of past glories that the two men long considered locks as captain’s picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team have combined for one victory over the last five years.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the most accomplished and durable stars of their generation. It’s been 25 years since America fielded a team that did not include at least one of them, which has rendered unthinkable for many fans the notion of a team without them, if they’re healthy.
Injuries caused Woods to miss three Ryder Cups over the last decade, and when he began his comeback seven months ago he seemed an unlikely bet to be playing this year in Paris. But when Jim Furyk announces his first three captain’s picks on Sept. 4 (the final one comes Sept. 10), Woods will be the most defensible name read aloud.
It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.
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.
Carnoustie’s charms can be elusive, but its cruelties are readily apparent. The old links has scant aesthetic appeal, no alluring views or heaving dunes. Like the village from which it draws its name, Carnoustie is simple and functional, and that function is simple: stress test the world’s finest golfers until just one remains unbroken.
Sometimes not even the winner emerges unscathed from a cross-examination at Carnoustie. Paul Lawrie, the 1999 champion, sought therapy after his victory was widely dismissed as a gift from a clownish Frenchman.
There’s a reason why the lingering images from recent championships here have been of the vanquished, not the victors: Jean Van de Velde barefoot in Barry Burn, Sergio Garcia doubled over in anguish after his putt to win lipped out.
At Carnoustie Opens, one man’s ecstasy is invariably built on another’s agony.
Not at the 147th Open, however. It was won by Francesco Molinari, not lost by his challengers.
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.
It’s reasonable to wonder if the field of sports psychology would exist but for golf. No game does a more comprehensive job of stripping its competitors down to the studs, exposing any rot and weaknesses that lie beneath a once imposing facade.
That’s true of major winners and municipal chops alike. The list of golfers who’ve been thoroughly humbled by one frailty or another reads like roll call at the Hall of Fame.
Putting hobbled Hogan and Watson and Els. With Nicklaus and Woods it was chipping. The greats find ways around it, of course, and move on. But it’s hard to go forward if you’re hitting it sideways. Losing the driver is what they all fear. That’s what finished Ballesteros, Baker-Finch and Duval, and damn near ended Stenson too.
Steven Bowditch doesn’t belong in this elite company, at least not in terms of the ecstasy known to major champions. But when it comes to the agony golf can inflict, the 35-year-old Australian fits right in.
It’s 30 minutes from Carnoustie across the River Tay to Scotscraig Golf Club. Unless you’re Brandel Chamblee, in which case the winding journey takes about 15 years.
On July 23, the day after the 147th British Open at Carnoustie concludes, the Golf Channel analyst plans to tee it up at Scotscraig in an effort to qualify for the Senior Open, held that week in St. Andrews. Scotscraig is where he qualified for the 1995 Open at the Old Course, adding a note of nostalgia to his quest.
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.