Hawk's Nest: Phil's focus tested as Open approaches


Phil Mickelson’s date with destiny has been dramatically diverted due to a lack of discretion.

Less than two weeks before the most highly anticipated start of his storied career, Lefty’s long-lost pursuit of a U.S. Open championship was dealt a jarring blow Friday at the Memorial. There is no such thing as an insignificant visit from federal agents in regard to possible insider-trading violations, nor can the timing of such an occurrence be passed off as mere coincidence.

Mickelson has denied any wrongdoing in the matter, which also involves Las Vegas gambler William “Billy” Walters and investor Carl Icahn. At this point, any further attempt to read between the lines becomes an exercise in journalistic futility. As it relates to the competitive element, however, there is a ton of context to consider with the 114th U.S. Open looming just 10 days away.

• A T-49 at Muirfield Village means Mickelson has played in 13 tournaments this season without a top-10 finish – by far the longest such stretch of his career. From his first full year as a pro (1993) through 2013, Philly Mick never failed to pick up a top-10 on the West Coast swing. In 15 of those 21 seasons, he won at least once before the PGA Tour headed to Florida.

• In what amounts to a smidgeon of irony, Mickelson has gone winless for an entire season twice in his career, the first of which occurred in 1999 – the year Payne Stewart beat him on the 72nd hole of the inaugural U.S. Open at Pinehurst. It was the first of Philly Mick’s six runner-up finishes in the event, which elucidates all the drama surrounding next week’s shindig.

Still, Mickelson clearly was playing better golf heading into that U.S. Open than he is now.

• Lefty is expected to compete in this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, having told reporters, “As a player, you have to block out whatever is going on [away from] the golf course to focus on the golf course. It’s not going to change the way I carry myself.” One would expect nothing less from a man who has dealt with numerous distractive forces over the years.

• That said, Philly Mick’s other winless season occurred in 2003, when his wife, Amy, struggled through the difficult childbirth of their son, Evan, leading to her own serious health issues. Six years later, he would play an abbreviated schedule after his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2012, Mickelson missed his first cut in 10 starts at Torrey Pines upon news that his middle child, Sophia, had suffered a seizure the previous week.

There is a human being inside every high-profile athlete. More often than most, Mickelson has reminded us of that, in part because of his willingness to unveil himself to the masses, but also because his competitive shortcomings play an ample role in shaping his public profile.

He is loved because he has lost so many times. Because he doesn’t know how to run from adversity or hide from failure. And because five major titles and 42 PGA Tour victories make you very special, regardless of who wants a word with you after the second round of the Memorial or how many national championships you’ve fumbled inside the 10-yard-line.

Can Mickelson show up at Pinehurst next week and suddenly perform at the highest level, his career at the crossroads, his personal life potentially imposed by the dark clouds of scandal?

“If anyone can, he can,” a good friend of his told me Sunday night. “He’s amazing at putting things behind him. Just like a cornerback in the NFL, the last play never happened, if you know what I mean.”

Most of us do.

WE’VE ALL SEEN terrific golfers go to pieces with the game on the line, but I’ve never seen a 22-year-old Japanese kid bust his driver in anger on the 72nd hole, then birdie it to force a playoff, then fashion a Dubuisson-like par to win a tournament otherwise lost by the reigning Masters champ and the world’s top-ranked player.

What I found most impressive about Hideki Matsuyama’s first PGA Tour victory was the ease with which he decapitated the club after a shot that wasn’t even close to bad – and the total non-reaction he displayed while walking to his ball. The young man almost seemed amused by it all.

It led to this comically awkward (or awkwardly comical) exchange in the media center afterward:

Q: It didn’t look like you [banged] the driver that hard. Were you shocked when the head came off?

Matsuyama: I was really shocked, because I didn’t – I really didn’t hit it that hard.

Jack Nicklaus: If you look at the replay, he almost just dropped the club.

Matsuyama: Yeah.

Nicklaus: It was a little bit more [than a] drop, but it wasn’t a whack.

Matsuyama: Exactly how Mr. Nicklaus explained, that’s what happened.

So the kid gets big-time bonus points not only for winning Jack’s event, but for genuflecting at the altar and even getting the iconic tournament host to translate his thoughts. This is just a guess, but I’m thinking the only thing Nicklaus ever broke was a couple of hundred scoring records and Tom Weiskopf’s competitive spirit.

Now that I mention it, I do recall the Olden Bear leaving a couple in Hell Bunker at the 1995 British Open and not being real happy about it, but let’s not loiter in royal and ancient history. The fact of the matter is, Bubba Watson almost drove it into somebody’s swimming pool at the par-5 15th Sunday and made a double bogey, effectively killing any chance of picking up his third win this season.

Now Bubba’s a high-strung horse, but he did not snap the offending club, pink shaft and all. He just never recovered. Matsuyama drove it in the 18th fairway but still executed his driver in much the same way King Henry VIII eliminated two of his wives. You’ve gotta love a guy who wins the Memorial and gets away with murder at the same time.

DON’T GET ME wrong. I enjoy watching Bubba play golf as much or more than I enjoy watching anybody. When he hits one of those boomerang hooks with a pitching wedge from 184 yards, as was the case at the par-3 12th Sunday, Watson’s fearlessness and talent become so evident that you half-wonder why he doesn’t win every tournament he enters.

Then, perhaps 10 minutes later, you catch a glimpse of the Bad Bubba. The guy with rabbit ears, the dude who snarls at every 8-footer that doesn’t go in, the gifted child who has turned blame deflection into an art form. Maybe Watson has won two of the last three Masters because he knows he can’t misbehave there.

The well-mannered galleries offer no friction, and Bubba bears down. He plays golf, and for the most part, he plays nice. Unfortunately for Watson, almost every other PGA Tour stop has become a Baba Booey convention. This has led to a number of relatively minor skirmishes with faulty photographers and rowdy fans.

More significantly, it has led one of the game’s most skilled ball-strikers down the beaten path. As my colleague, Ryan Lavner, points out in the most recent installment of After Further Review, Watson has won just twice in nine attempts when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead – he’s 0 for 5 when having that lead to himself.

Tiger Woods can win angry; it’s something I’ve seen a couple-dozen times. Hideki Matsuyama? Anger was his best friend Sunday, and he’s got both the trophy and the shrapnel to prove it. Bubba Watson? He needs to chill. Those boomerangs will come right back at you at the worst possible times.