Mickelson showing no wear from intense spotlight

By Jason SobelJune 4, 2014, 7:20 pm

Believe it or not, there's no PGA Tour statistic called Strokes Gained While Being Investigated for Insider Trading, so in the curious case of Phil Mickelson we're pretty much treading through uncharted waters.

In advance of next week’s U.S. Open, though, that’s what we really want to know. Short of questions such as, “Is he guilty?” and “What will happen if he’s guilty?” the one on everybody’s mind following the report that he’s being investigated by the FBI and SEC is, “How will this affect his performance at the one tournament he so desperately wants to win?”

This is the kind of wearisome narrative that prefaces so many big-time sporting events. It’s sexier than asking how the lack of rough at Pinehurst will impact the leaderboard; it’s more targeted and specific than asking who might contend next week.

We’ve already sent three major storylines through the carwash. Tiger is injured; Adam is married; Rory is single. Been there, done that. And so now the focus turns to Mickelson’s life-long quest to become a U.S. Open champion, the one career goal which has always eluded him.

There is no blueprint for determining how this kind of distraction will affect him, but here are some things we already know about how Mickelson has dealt with adversity in the past:

• He played in 46 majors without a victory, his inefficiency turning into a punch line on late-night talk shows, then rebounded to win not one, but five so far.

• He witnessed both his wife and mother undergoing treatments for cancer and returned to win more majors.

• He underwent his own issues with arthritis and has won a major since then, too.

Mickelson has proven he’s nothing if not buoyant, golf’s answer to Teflon. He is the game's all-time leader in mowing down inquisitive questions from the press while wearing a ubiquitous smile on his face. All of which should leave him confident that this, too, shall pass – no, not the investigation, but the constant consternation over it.

Actually, it already has. The story broke on Friday evening, well after Mickelson had finished his second round at the Memorial Tournament. When he finished playing the next day, he was predictably – and rightly – besieged with questions about the investigation and how it might affect him going forward.

By the next day, he had already so carefully deflected all inquiries regarding this that his post-round interview session included zero questions on the topic.

On Wednesday, following his pro-am round at the FedEx St. Jude Classic he was only indirectly asked about the ongoing investigation. He was asked if he is able to just focus on golf, whether he’s worried about his image, if the legal situation is bothering him.

To the last question, he offered the same response that he so often chose last Saturday: “I can’t really go into it right now, but hopefully soon.”

If these queries are weighing so heavily on Mickelson’s mind that they’re greatly affecting him, then he’s got one heck of a poker face.

It makes sense, though: The initial reports suggested he’s known about this investigation for a few years now. Just because the rest of us know about it now, that shouldn’t make it any more difficult for him.

The truth is, Mickelson was dealing with this matter last summer, too, when he improbably captured the Scottish Open, then backed it up by even more improbably capturing the Open Championship. If he was able to find success during the investigation then, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be able to now.

That’s not to say he will win or contend or even make the cut next week at Pinehurst, site of the first of his six career U.S. Open runner-up results. If he doesn’t, the narrative will still revolve around the investigation. The public takeaway will be that Mickelson couldn’t handle the extra pressure of competing while his dirty laundry was being aired for all to see.

That would be overlooking the obvious, though. If he isn’t a factor at next week’s tournament, it will likely have more to do with the fact that he owns an uncharacteristically spotty record this year – that doesn’t yet include a single top-10 – and the even more pertinent fact that he’s dealing with so many ghosts of U.S. Open past.

Or maybe not. Maybe Mickelson will fail to play his best golf, and then bare his soul, allowing that the investigation negatively impacted his preparation and performance.

So far, that isn’t the case. There is no master diagram to playing elite-level golf while undergoing an insider-trading investigation – and there’s no way of knowing how it will affect a player. From what we’ve seen out of Mickelson over the past few days, however, he’ll continue flashing that ubiquitous smile and deflecting all inquiries.

It’s been working so far. There’s no reason to think that will change next week.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”