SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It begins with Tiger and Phil, just like everything concerning golf for the last 20 years, but this U.S. Open has more story lines than Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The vein of plots and subplots runs deeper than it has in years, and maybe deeper than it ever has.
“I’ve never thought about it from that perspective,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s CEO. “I don’t even know what all the story lines are. Most of the time, we hear, ‘I need a story line.’ ”
Not this year. Every U.S. Open has a few intriguing threads as the tournament begins: Francis Ouimet in 1913; Arnold Palmer in 1960 at Cherry Creek, with Ben Hogan on his way out and Jack Nicklaus storming in; Curtis Strange trying to win three in a row in 1990; the somber 2000 edition at Pebble Beach, where the pros paid homage to Payne Stewart, where Nicklaus said goodbye, and where Tiger won the first of his three.
As usual, the USGA is shining a light on the course and its setup, this time Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which is indeed an American treasure. As usual, the golfers are more important. Everyone who matters is present, healthy, and playing as well as can be expected.
It begins with the usual suspects.
Tiger and Phil
Woods, 42, hasn’t won a major championship since 2008. Mickelson, who will turn 48 on Saturday, needs a win to become the sixth golfer to complete the career “grand slam,” since he has won the Masters, the PGA Championship, and the British Open. Mickelson also has finished second at U.S. Opens six times, a dubious record in itself. A win by either this week would be the biggest story of 2018.
“I would probably consider Phil’s more impressive because that’s a significant career accomplishment, to win all four majors,” said Jordan Spieth, who needs a PGA Championship to complete his own slam. “If Tiger wins the U.S. Open, then all he’s going to be asked about is, ‘Is he going to get to 18?’ ”
Precisely. If Woods wins his 15th major, it means that he still has the firepower to catch Nicklaus, and that would be the biggest golf story of the era.
Location matters, too. Tiger will have resumed the hunt on Long Island, where he has been beloved since he won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, in the backyard of the hyperbolic New York papers.
“I think the biggest story would probably be Tiger. I think a lot of people are kind of chomping at the bit for him to come back and do something special,” said Jason Day, who spent the past decade watching Woods rehabilitate everything from his love life to his short game. “For Tiger to go through injuries, go through what happened in his personal life, and then come back, then go through what he did with the chipping and all that stuff.”
Can it happen? It’s unlikely. Tiger is ranked 80th in the world, but, more significant, he is 89th on the PGA Tour in putting, which is like Steph Curry trying to win without his three-pointer. A lost putting stroke doesn’t reappear on poa annua greens at a U.S. Open. Then again, it is Tiger.
Mickelson ranks second in putting, but he’s 131st off the tee and 79th in scrambling, and U.S. Open winners generally find fairways and get up-and-down. Mickelson still has magic, though. He won the WGC Mexico City in March, has four other top-six finishes, and is back in the top 20. Rankings and wins and stats are irrelevant to him now.
“Now that I’ve won the other three Majors, it’s U.S. Open-specific,” said Mickelson, who missed the 2017 tournament to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. “I would love to win this one to win all four. That’s certainly a goal, and nothing I’m shying away from.”
The other guys
This would still be the most compelling U.S. Open in years even if Tiger was still hurt and Phil had another bad excuse.
Will Rickie Fowler finally win his first major, just eight days after he got engaged to former all-American pole vaulter Allison Stokke here in the Hamptons? He’ll win eventually, he said.
“We’ll get it done,” said Fowler, who has been playing Shinnecock since 2013 in preparation for this week.
Fowler will be 30 in December, and he’s had top-five finishes in the last four majors, so he’ll have plenty more good chances to win a major. Matt Kuchar, who turns 40 next week, will not. Both Fowler and Kuchar are proud of having won the Players Championship, which is the best golf tournament in the world, but so did Sergio Garcia, before he won the 2017 Masters. Unless Sergio is at TPC Sawgrass, he’s not introduced as the 2008 Players Champion.
It’s been almost four years since Rory McIlroy won his last major, but a lot has happened since then: He injured himself playing soccer and missed the 2015 British Open, he got married, and the comeptition got a lot better.
Day took McIlroy’s No. 1 ranking on Sept. 19, 2015, about a month after Day won the PGA Championship, which remains his only major title. Like McIlroy, Day has changed caddies and has a more settled family life. Like McIlroy, Day has won on the PGA Tour this year (twice, actually).
Brooks Koepka is trying to defend the title for the first time since Strange did so in 1989. And, of course, the best golfer in the world is here, too.
Since Dustin Johnson infamously three-putted the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay in 2015 and handed the title to Spieth, he has been a phenomenon. Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open four months after he took the No. 1 ranking from Day, which he has held for 65 of the last 69 weeks. He just reclaimed it from Thomas last week, when Johnson won the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Most of the rest of the expected contenders were on Long Island, researching a course Johnson has never seen.
“I wanted to keep my game sharp,” said Johnson, the Keanu Reeves of the PGA Tour.
No one has ever won the U.S. Open the week after winning another PGA Tour event.
At least his game is sharp.