PINEHURST, N.C. – Phil Mickelson and Pinehurst.
Pinehurst and Phil Mickelson.
After weeks of chatter that’s what the 114th U.S. Open has come down to – a 43-year-old trying to pen a memorable final chapter and an iconic course that has turned back the clock for all the right reasons.
Ever since Lefty hoisted the claret jug on a similarly brownish layout last July at Muirfield the talk, much of it born from his own admissions, has fixated on Mickelson completing the career Grand Slam at Pinehurst, the site of his first national heartbreak back in 1999.
“The thing for me is that I look at those close calls as positive signs for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship,” said Mickelson, a six-time runner-up at the U.S. Open. “I believe that I’ll have more opportunities.”
Perhaps. Maybe this will be Phil’s week where the missed opportunities from Merion to Winged Foot are washed away, but there is no sugar coating the fact that along with the pressures of completing the career Grand Slam Mickelson will also be dealing with a balky putter (he switched to a modified claw grip … this week) and an ongoing federal investigation over possible insider trading.
Nothing spices up a post-round interview like federal agents looming to ask uncomfortable questions.
Which leaves Pinehurst, which has been left scruffy and brown by Mother Nature and architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s handiwork.
While player reaction has been mixed this week regarding the new-look No. 2, there is an undercurrent of concern among the rank and file.
“Kind of looks like Shinnecock (Hills),” figured one player as he glanced over the scorched landscape on Wednesday.
And we all know how that turned out (see U.S. Open, 2004).
Yet for all the fixation on Mickelson and the venue, the reality is only once in the last 20 years have either of those elements emerged as the ultimate Sunday storyline – in 2006 when Mickelson sliced his title chances into corporate tents and ’04 when the U.S. Golf Association did the same with its setup of Shinnecock Hills.
History strongly suggests the final headline will have nothing to do with either the course or Mickelson. It’s not as though either story isn’t compelling; it’s just that among the 155 other options there are too many Plan B’s to ignore.
Consider Rory McIlroy, this week’s betting favorite, hasn’t finished outside the top 25 on the PGA Tour this season and won the European Tour’s flagship event three weeks with a commanding final round.
The Northern Irishman is also showing the same overpowering precision off the tee that he enjoyed when he lapped the field at the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes.
“He is in a really, really good spot,” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “He’s worked harder on his game now than maybe ever. He’s focused on his golf.”
In a twist of fate, however, few within the golf world are focused on him this week.
The same could be said for Adam Scott, perhaps the most under-the-radar world No. 1 coming into a major championship.
Never mind that after assuming the world’s top spot from his couch last month he’s won (Crowne Plaza Invitational) and finished tied for fourth (Memorial Tournament).
Never mind that the Australian ranks among the top 5 on Tour this season in ball-striking, total driving, scoring and birdie average, all areas that would seem to play well on No. 2.
To put Scott’s obscurity in context, during his news conference on Wednesday morning he was asked seven questions. By comparison, Mickelson’s media Q&A on Tuesday included 20 questions.
The week has seen similar scenarios across the tee sheet.
From Jason Day, perhaps the hottest player in golf this year until he landed on the DL with an ailing thumb after winning the WGC-Match Play Championship, to Matt Kuchar, who would top many lists for the most likely player to join the major championship club this week, and Henrik Stenson, the world’s second-ranked player who wasn’t even asked to endure a news conference.
For all the hyperbole over Mickelson and Pinehurst, it seems much more likely it will be a “non-story” who steals the spotlight when play begins on Thursday just before 7 a.m. ET.
And what of Mother Nature, the ultimate harbinger of how things transpire at any golf tournament?
The forecast for rain chances varies between 50 percent (Thursday) to 30 percent (Saturday), but as USGA executive director Mike Davis pointed out on Wednesday the forecast has been the same for days with virtually no relief for the parched golf course.
The event would seem to have a Benjamin Button feel to it with the course evolving in the opposite direction from most major championships.
Normally these Grand Slam soirees become increasingly more difficult, but as a result of the forecast and the realities of next week’s U.S. Women’s Open, which will be played on the No. 2 course, officials may have to dial things back as the tournament progresses.
The ever-present alternative is a golf course that can so easily lapse over the line between fair and impossibly frustrating.
“When you are watching well-executed shots being penalized, we never want that,” Davis said. “Having said that, when you get the world’s best players, and we’re trying to set it up in this manner it’s probably easier to cross the line.”
The only certainty, however, is that the final line won’t likely be about the course or Mickelson – despite the pre-tournament hype. The national championship has a tendency to dig much deeper for it’s storylines.