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.
By lunchtime Friday at the Players Championship, the normally fearsome TPC Sawgrass was looking almost toothless, with the scoring average hovering around 71 and the cut likely to fall under par for only the third time in the last 20 years.
The low scoring has surprised a lot of veterans who have endured tougher times at this Pete Dye brute, not least two-time winner Tiger Woods.
“It’s in perfect shape, it’s just playing really short. It’s so hot out here, the ball’s flying. We’re probably playing close to a club less than we normally do,” he said after a second round 71. “The cut right now is under par, which is unheard of around here.”
The course may be playing relatively easy for the best, but how about for the rest?
There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.
The PGA Tour has hewed to a familiar script over the last few years, as a succession of recent high schoolers hoist trophies that almost weigh more than they do.
It’s a generation of fine players – these Justin Thomases, Jordan Spieths and Jon Rahms – and many of them seem destined for the Hall of Fame. But there’s a uniformity to their cohort, well-adjusted kids who are more likely to spend tournament nights downing kale smoothies at the gym than shots of bourbon at a saloon.
Which is fair enough. That Tour is long dead, as are most of the guys who lived it.
It’s hard to avoid Golf Bro these days. He’s at every PGA Tour event, usually carrying more beer than brain cells, and always possessed of a garrulous self-regard while destitute of self-awareness.
If you’re not fortunate enough to attend a tournament to hear Golf Bro holler his witticisms in person, fear not, for he pollutes the airwaves as enthusiastically he does the fairways. When did you last enjoy a broadcast without shots being punctuated with cries of “Baba Booey” or “Mashed Potato?” Those well-worn phrases are seemingly akin to reciting Shakespeare for the sloshed.
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.
Tiger Woods has long been accustomed to owning the sports headlines on the day after the Arnold Palmer Invitational concludes. That PGA Tour event—which Woods has won eight times—wrapped on Sunday without its legendary namesake (who died in September) or the injured Woods, who in recent years has spent more time on the sidelines than Bill Belichick.
There was a time when tournament appearances by Tiger Woods were theaters of high drama: the greatest golfer in history ruthlessly chasing down every record worthy of pursuit. But that was before chipping yips and back surgeries, before Achilles and ACL injuries, before personal scandal and swing woes, even before most folks had heard of Rory McIlroy. Or Barack Obama.
Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week 15 months after being sidelined by a pair of microdiscectomy procedures. His reappearance is cause for celebration but also for trepidation, since his more recent performances have veered between farce and tragedy.
The winner of 14 majors had been scheduled to return at the Safeway Open in October, but just three days after committing to play, Woods withdrew. “After a lot of soul searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play,” he said. “My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”
For fans weaned on Tiger’s cutthroat aggression and indomitable self-belief, the admission of frailty stood out, as though his clubs were suddenly carved from kryptonite. His withdrawal was no routine acknowledgment of competitive rustiness. Golf’s Gretzky was sitting out because he was scared of slipping on the ice.
Thursday, October 6, 2016, marked 20 years since Tiger Woods first won a professional golf tournament in Las Vegas, a city that exists to provide former superstars with a comeback annuity. It also marked 410 days since Woods last struck a shot on the PGA Tour—not since the final round of the Wyndham Championship in August 2015, when he stumbled late in his bid for an 80th career win, which would have left him just two shy of Sam Snead’s record tally.
His tie for 10th that Sunday was the best finish of Woods’s year, but a few weeks later he underwent two back surgeries and retreated to rehab.
His eagerly awaited return comes at the Safeway Open in Napa, California, this Thursday, October 13, by which point 3,041 days will have passed since Woods won a tournament he really cared about (the 2008 United States Open, his 14th major title). Since then, he has been in a long, steady decline widely mistaken for a series of slumps and injury layoffs.