UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Even by West Coast standards this is a target-rich environment for feel-good stories.
Imagine the possibilities of a reclamation project wresting himself off the competitive trash heap on a reclaimed sand quarry hard on the shores of Puget Sound.
Tiger Woods, seven years removed from his last major victory, arrived at Chambers Bay filled with optimism in his ongoing quest to be more than what his record says he is – which at the moment is the 195th-ranked player in the world who is nearly two years removed from his last top-10 finish on the PGA Tour. Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, was only slightly less hopeful in his race against the clock to complete the career Grand Slam.
Tiger vs. Phil, Phil vs. Tiger – the default option for more than a decade for those pining for a sentimental showdown – may be a tempting scenario, but this will be no Mulligan Open, certainly not for Tiger and probably not for Lefty.
It’s not so much the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Chambers Bay lunar-scape that stands between the two legends and a legendary week in the Pacific Northwest as much as it is a cast of consistent characters who yield to neither name recognition nor sentimentality.
That a new Big 3 has emerged with Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler trading titles and time in the spotlight with regularity leaves little room for veterans looking to turn back the clock, regardless of how compelling the script may be.
“When I look at the world rankings and I see my name up at the top, if you look back at the last four or five years, I guess I've won more majors than anyone else in that time period,” reasoned McIlroy on Tuesday when asked to compare his level of dominance to that enjoyed by LeBron James. “Do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes. And obviously I want to go out every week and try to back that up and show that.”
The young champion was not being pretentious, just pragmatic.
All told, the up-and-coming combination of McIlroy, Fowler and Spieth has won 50 percent of the last eight Tour events, including the year’s first major (Spieth), the last World Golf Championship (McIlroy) and the debatable fifth major (Fowler).
That the trio also seems uniquely suited for one of the more crispy major championships in recent memory only furthers the narrative that the stars seem to be aligning for a next-generation showdown.
For Spieth, Chambers Bay and the Lag Putting Open is a perfect fit for the game’s most steady short stick. Third on Tour this season in three-putt avoidance with the added benefit of the week’s most experienced caddie on the links-like layout in Michael Greller, the Masters champion presents the most likely argument for early favorite and it’s an opportunity he’s embraced with fearless aplomb.
“I've now told myself, I have a chance to make history in many ways. But in order to do that, I have to really focus on this week, focus on the major championships and how I'm going to prepare for them,” Spieth said. “You can't win a Grand Slam unless you win the first [two].”
Fowler has been no less emboldened by his recent play and his position in an emerging world order.
His victory in May at The Players quieted concern that his play had not exactly lived up to his public persona as a singular star, and his performances at the Open Championship – which given Chambers Bay’s unique topography is a better gauge of potential success this week than what he’s done in America’s national championship – is reason to consider this week his best option to get on the Grand Slam scoreboard.
It’s also telling that when presented with an opportunity to consider a “best-case scenario” for this week it wasn’t a potential title bout with Woods or Mickelson that Fowler offered up.
“[McIlroy] is the guy out front. There's a lot of times where you see him up on the board and in a way expect him to be there,” said Fowler, who finished second to McIlroy the last time the world’s best played a brown-and-bouncy major championship at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
“We’re ready to go to battle and go toe to toe. Personally I want to see him play well and I want to go up against him when he is playing well, to go have some fun and see who comes out on top.”
Whether those stars align, however, will likely have as much to do with Mike Davis’ ideology as it does individual performances. Perhaps not since the USGA brought its championship to Southern California and Torrey Pines have so many eyes been on the executive director.
What little institutional knowledge that exists about Chambers Bay is not exactly encouraging for the field of 156, with opinions from the 2010 U.S. Amateur held at the course ranging from the incensed to the indifferent.
So far, the rank and file have remained cautiously hopeful Davis and the USGA will err on the side of reason for this week’s championship, but there was a particularly surreal moment on Tuesday when Jones asked Woods his thoughts on Chambers Bay.
While there was no easy way for the three-time U.S. Open champion to tell Jones his baby is ugly, metaphorically speaking, his thoughts were not exactly a ringing endorsement of the layout and echoed those of many in the field.
“We don't know what Mike is going to do and when he's going to do it. What tees he's going to move up, what tees he's going to leave back, and to what pin locations, where he's going to put them,” Woods said. “It's unlike any other major championship I've ever had to prepare for having to hit so many different tee shots.”
It’s also unlike any major that’s been played in the past decade, with Woods and Mickelson still drawing attention in the pre-championship din despite a discernible shift atop golf’s competitive landscape.