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Drama, distress among top players entering Open

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During the three days leading up to the start of the U.S. Open every year, the most popular man on-site – certainly among those wearing media credentials – is USGA executive director Mike Davis.

A big part of the story at every Open is the golf course and its setup. Since Davis spends several years preparing each Open layout for its close-up, then several weeks making final decisions on setup, everyone wants a few minutes of his pre-Thursday time.

Davis will certainly be in demand next week to talk about re-designed Pinehurst No. 2, but the mad dash for him may not be as intense as it would normally be before the first meaningful tee shot takes flight.

That’s because the 114th U.S. Open presents a unique set of off-course-leading-to-the-golf-course story lines. Heck, the fact that the No.1 player in the world – Adam Scott – is having some Sunday difficulties of late leads to little more than a raised eyebrow.

Consider three names: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. With all due respect to Scott and his legion of female fans, these are the three most famous golfers in the world. And right now, the one with the least on his mind is McIlroy – who recently broke off his engagement and ended a three-year relationship with a glamorous tennis star.

In fact, it’s a toss-up as to who has the most tsouris (that’s Yiddish for stress) between the two old pals, Woods and Mickelson. Woods’ golf career could be in jeopardy. Mickelson’s life could be in jeopardy.

Okay, those are absolute worst-case scenarios, but let’s think about all this for a moment.

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Woods had back surgery on March 31. Since then, he has gone into hiding, breaking silence to say on his website that he has no idea when he’ll play again; and taking part at a news conference promoting the tournament he hosts at Congressional Country Club to say that he still has no idea when he’ll play again.

There have been no leaks – which usually come through agent Mark Steinberg to Tiger-friendly media outlets – since then indicating that he’s starting to fully swing a club or that the doctors have cleared him to do anything more than the “gentle” chipping and putting he has talked about.

Some people think Woods will be in England next month for the British Open, which is being played at Royal Liverpool, a golf course he dominated when the Open was last played there in 2006. But Day 1 of that championship is only six weeks away. In the grand scheme of recovery from back surgery that’s not very long. It’s worth noting, too, that the doctor who did the surgery on Woods said that an elite athlete could normally be “back in the field,” in three to four months – but might need longer than that to be as good as he was when 100 percent healthy.

If Woods was a normal human being you would think he would need at least one warm-up event before Liverpool. But Woods isn’t normal. He came back after post-Masters knee surgery in 2008, showed up at the U.S. Open, won – and played an extra 19 playoff holes – and then needed more surgery right after that.

Never count him out. But the smoke signals coming from his camp have, at least until now, not been terribly encouraging.

The world knows even less about what’s going on with Mickelson. Last Thursday, two FBI agents showed up at the Memorial wanting to talk to him. As you might expect, he suggested they speak to his lawyers. No doubt they have or will.

The Wall Street Journal subsequently broke a story saying that Mickelson is being investigated by the SEC – the Securities and Exchange Commission, not the Southestern Conference – and by the FBI for possible insider trading. Specifically, the Journal reported, there were questions about Mickelson’s involvement with billionaire investor Carl Icahn and big-time Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters in a 2011 deal involving Clorox stock.

It’s no surprise that Mickelson says he did nothing wrong. And none of us has any idea what’s involved here. We do know this: According to the Journal story, the investigation started over a year ago. When Mickelson became aware of it is anybody’s guess but since his victory at Muirfield last summer, he has not been a ball of fire on the golf course. Everyone knows the numbers for this season: no wins, no top-10 finishes and a missed cut at the Masters for the first time since 1998.

Very un-Mickelson like.

Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps the psoriatic arthritis is starting to affect his game. Perhaps he’s finally starting to show his age as he approaches his 44th birthday next week.

Or, perhaps he’s got something on his mind. Those who deal with the SEC on a regular basis are unanimous in saying it is a nightmare – regardless of whether you are innocent. The SEC is relentless and doesn’t make anything easy for anyone who is being investigated – for ANYTHING. Perhaps that’s what they have to do in order to get their jobs done. But it is almost impossible to believe that the presence of SEC and FBI investigators in anyone’s life can be terribly pleasant.

All of which makes McIlroy’s emotional announcement of his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki two weeks ago seems like, well, puppy love by comparison. Not that a three-year relationship or a broken engagement should be taken lightly. Certainly McIlroy didn’t do that. But he’s 25 and she’s 22. They will both move on to other relationships and it’s possible that McIlroy now feels he’s brought closure to a phase of his life that needed closure.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson appear likely to find closure with their current predicaments in the near future. Next week, Mickelson has to deal with all the normal questions about finally winning a U.S. Open with the SEC and the FBI lurking over his shoulder. Woods, even when he comes back, will have to show the world that he can be Tiger Woods again.

Daunting tasks in both cases.

Mike Davis won’t be lonely next week but he’ll probably have more free time than usual.