Golf — Weekly 18 — At 117th U.S. Open, change is the name of the game


The following column was written on a flight to Wisconsin that was so delayed, its pace-of-play was completely in line with U.S. Open standards.

1. This is an important week for the USGA — and not just for the usual reasons. From the Chambers Bay greens two years ago to last year’s Dustin Johnson ruling debacle to the upcoming U.S. Women’s Open being held on a Trump-owned course, the organization has come under plenty of fire recently. Gotta believe Mike Davis and the powers-that-be are ultra-aware of this, too. If there was ever a tourney they need to go off without a hitch, this is the one.

2. This will help: For the first time in a quarter-century, a U.S. Open venue will play to a par-72 for the tournament. Why does it matter? The truth is, it doesn’t – except in public perception. If a winner posts a score of, say, 285 on a par-70 track, that’s a 5-over total and sounds as if the USGA is simply trying to punish its competitors. If a winner posts that same 285 on a par-72, though, it’s only 3-under and hardly offers that same impression.

3. Don’t believe me, though. Believe Arnold Palmer. I once asked The King whether it mattered that Bay Hill had played as a par-72, then a par-70, then back to a par-72 again. He scoffed (that really is the most apt description of his reaction), then vigorously shook his head and answered, “Nope, not one bit.” He then explained the rationale behind the final change: “I guess the trend now is that people want to see more birdies.” Scores will look better at Erin Hills this week in relation to par, but it won’t really matter. Nope, not one bit.

4. The early scouting report from Erin Hills? Power off the tee is an advantage, accuracy into the greens is a necessity and mid-range putting will be key. So … if you’re picking a winner, go with the guy who hits it long and straight and makes a ton of putts. You know, the usual U.S. Open combination. That usually works.

5. Despite the week-long will-he-or-won’t-he debate, the writing is on the wall: Phil Mickelson isn’t playing this week’s U.S. Open. Unless the Pacific Ridge School changes its commencement time in the next few days (very unlikely) or Mickelson was just offering a smokescreen about wanting to be there (even more unlikely) or there’s about a four-hour weather delay for the opening round (increasingly unlikely), it’ll be a Phil-less week.

6. There was a lot of bellyaching on social media this week (OK, that statement is probably redundant) about a) whether Mickelson received special treatment from the USGA; and b) whether that special treatment was preferential. While it’s obvious the USGA was conscious of Mickelson’s impending decision, contesting that it’s somehow biased to place him in Thursday’s third-to-last grouping doesn’t really add up. Sure, he’s playing with two qualifiers, but they’re Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink, not a pair of amateurs. Someone had to round out that tee time anyway. It might as well be him.

7. Sometimes we’re too trigger-happy in the moment while pronouncing the unofficial end of an era, but here’s a telling fact: If indeed Mickelson doesn’t compete this week, it will be the first major that doesn’t include him or Tiger Woods since the 1994 Masters — a period of 94 total majors.

8. I’m probably in the minority here, but I never believed that Stricker warranted a special exemption into the U.S. Open. He’s a great guy and a home state favorite, but if those alone were the sole criteria, the USGA could dole out a dozen exemptions every year. That said, I thought it was terrific that Stricker followed by trying to qualify through his world ranking, didn’t do it, then went to sectional qualifying and earned medalist honors in Memphis. Isn’t that better than just being handed the exemption anyway?

9. I understand the OWGR. I get how it works. I even wrote a lengthy piece about the math behind the ranking. But I also realize when the formula fails us. Here’s an example: Entering this past week, Jordan Spieth had earned 149.944 total points in 2017. That total ranked him fourth in the world, behind only Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia. It should result in a nice bump in his ranking, right? Not exactly. Since the beginning of the year, Spieth has dropped from fifth to sixth. Of course, even if the math doesn’t makes sense, it’s still just math.

10. Justin Thomas. Hideki Matsuyama. And now Daniel Berger. Successfully defending a title on the PGA Tour isn’t supposed to be easy, but three players have now done it this season. Granted, there’s a comfort level at the courses for each of these three players, but there’s also that dreaded sense of trying to live up to prior success. Impressive stuff by all of them, especially Berger, who now owns two career titles — both in Memphis.

11. Following his recent NCAA title, Braden Thornberry — still competing as an amateur — posted an opening-round 71 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic on Thursday, then spoke with the assembled media. “The goal,” he said, “is to get up there in contention.” That seemed aspirational stuff for a kid playing the PGA Tour and already over par, but three days later, he was polishing up a final-round 65 that gave him the clubhouse lead for a while before finishing in a share of fourth place. That combination of moxie and skill is going serve him very well once he turns pro.

12. Of course, Thornberry can’t play well at this level without being asked about it. You know, the question: When are you going to turn pro? Having just completed his sophomore season at Ole Miss, he hasn’t yet decided (or at least publicly acknowledged) when that will happen. Here’s some unsolicited advice for the kid: If you’re burning to get on with life and start making some cash, turn pro anytime, because you’re certainly good enough. But if you’re enjoying yourself and want to stay in school, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. The professional ranks aren’t going anywhere.

13. If Dos Equis can replace its own Most Interesting Man in the World, then golf can certainly follow suit. If we need a successor to Miguel Angel Jimenez, then his countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello will easily suffice. He was born in the Canary Islands, lives in Dubai, goes surfing in Bali and later this year will marry a Swedish model. Throw in the fact that he’s got movie-star looks and he’s as affable as they come — oh, and he’s kinda decent at golf, too — and he could certainly have that torched passed to him without any worries. Following a T-4 this past week, don’t be surprised to see big things from him at Erin Hills.

14. In last week’s Weekly 18, I wrote about Steven Bowditch, who might be on the verge of busting out of his lengthy slump. If there’s a player even more embattled than him, it’s Matt Every. Entering this past week, Every had missed the cut or withdrawn from 25 of his past 27 events, dating back to last year — and he finished T-62 and T-65 in those other two. But the FedEx St. Jude provided a much-needed reprieve. The first-round co-leader, Every posted rounds of 64-70-71-72 to finish T-27 – his best result since a T-24 in Phoenix last February.

15. Here’s my full reaction to golf likely getting an extension into the 2024 Olympic Games: Oh … cool. I mean, I’m certainly not against golf’s continued inclusion — that would just be too jaded — but I’m still skeptical that two weeks every four years can help grow the game globally. Last year’s return edition amounted to a pair of very nice golf tournaments, but hardly made the impact that some believed it would have. Hence the tepid reaction.

16. As a former Connecticut resident and longtime admirer of how the Travelers Championship runs its tournament, I’m admittedly biased here, but it’s tremendous news that Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth will each play the event for the first time next week. I’ve witnessed firsthand how Travelers EVP Andy Bessette, tournament director Nathan Grube and everyone involved with the tourney work to make it the best possible experience for the players, fans, volunteers and, yes, even media. For an event that nearly went belly-up a decade ago before an 11th hour save by its new title sponsor, the frenzy surrounding this year’s edition is truly deserved.

17. Earlier this year, Charl Schwartzel was hit on the wrist by the errant shot of a pro-am partner. This week came the news of an amateur golfer who during a clinic with Padraig Harrington, struck the three-time major champion on the elbow with his club. “Thankfully nothing was broken, just 6 stitches,” Harrington tweeted. “I thought it was the end of me playing competitive golf.” Luckily, I can think of only one person in this story who should probably stop playing golf for a little while.

18. Remember: No matter how discouraging this game can get, it’s always nice to be able to confidently say, “My swing has never led to the career-ending injury of a major champion.”