Phil Mickelson will be supported, mostly, say three former players turned TV analysts.
But Paul Azinger also believes you’ll be watching the embattled star for only two days this week at the U.S. Open.
“I predict that, if Phil’s missing the cut, like on Friday afternoon or something, it can get pretty rough on him,” Azinger said as part of a pre-tournament teleconference for NBC, which will broadcast the event. “I just think — this is a big step these guys have made. They’ve changed the game forever probably. But I agree, he is so popular. … And people do forgive. If it’s Phil Mickelson — I’ve always loved Phil Mickelson. He’s always been great to my kids. I’ll always appreciate him for that.
“I don’t necessarily agree with everything he’s ever done, that’s for sure, but if he does get in contention, it would be a miracle, I really think. A minor miracle that that guy could get in contention with all that’s been going on. But we’ll cover it fairly, I’ll tell you that.”
Of all the rich storylines this week — the historic venue (The Country Club), the wide-open field (Rory, Rahm, Spieth, Thomas, et al.), the stakes (it’s a major!) — none will likely be picked and prodded at more than Mickelson. Of course, that’s Mickelson and all that’s been swirling around him for the past four months or so, and not so much Mickelson the golfer. (Though could you imagine if the six-time major champion finally completes the Grand Slam now??) Should you need a refresher, here’s a longish sentence: Mickelson plotted to leave the PGA Tour, said some R-rated words about the backers of his potential new golf venture, apologized, left golf for four months, returned and played for the new series last week — and is now heading to Brookline. (Whew.)
In his quote above, Azinger actually laid out well the Phil stories within the Phil story — what the fan support, in sports-loving Boston, could be; how NBC will cover it; and whether Mickelson can actually contend — and we’ll let that guide our conversation here. The cheers-or-jeers thought is no doubt a fascinating one. And the question essentially is this: How bulletproof is one of the most popular players of all time?
“Hey, that’s why we watch,” Azinger said on the teleconference.
“I think the response will be mostly positive because he has been a fan favorite for so many years,” Justin Leonard said. “But that Boston crowd, they’re going to let you know how they feel. Not everyone, but a lot of people in Boston, they like to not only attend these sports, but they become active participants. I’m sure there will be some participation by the fans in Boston, both positive and negative.”
“We’ve had athletes throughout history end up in jail and do things that were extremely controversial, but if they have success in their respective sport on the field, the public seems to be very forgiving with regard to that,” Notah Begay said. “I mean, look at Tiger Woods’ struggles off the golf course a number of times, and all seemed to be forgotten when he became the Masters champion back in 2019. …
“Phil’s always been one of the favorites amongst spectators, and he feeds off of that energy. That might not be the case starting out. … If he does get in contention Saturday, Sunday, I think that will all shift back behind Phil. But initially starting, not everybody there is going to be a hundred percent supportive.
“As Justin stated, they will speak their mind.”
As for the coverage, twice during the teleconference, NBC producer Tommy Roy and announcer Dan Hicks said the broadcast wouldn’t shy from discussing Mickelson, or any of the other 14 golfers in the Open field who are also associated with the Saudi-backed LIV Invitational Series, the aforementioned golf league startup. Notably, golf’s other main broadcaster, CBS, tackled the subject for the first time during its Saturday broadcast of the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open — analyst Nick Faldo bashed the format and players, while announcer Jim Nantz said he felt “betrayal” — and Hicks may have offered a preview of what’s to come this week with NBC when he said: “In this particular time that we find ourselves in, the world of golf and what’s happening today in London and the divisiveness that it has created, I’m sad with that. But at the same time, I’m so looking forward to getting the focus back, even for just a week, if we can get everybody away from all this talk, for what makes the game great.”
So back to the golf then. Can Mickelson contend?
Here, at least, are the facts: At last week’s LIV Series event, Mickelson shot one-under 69, 75 and 76 and tied for 33rd in the 48-man field. In the four tournaments he played this season on the PGA Tour, Mickelson tied for 36th, tied for 30th and missed two cuts.
Then again, you probably didn’t see him winning the PGA Championship last May, either.
Love him or hate him, Mickelson is box office.
“I’m really more curious where his game is, just because he hasn’t played competitively in so long,” Leonard said on the teleconference. “U.S. Open tests with a thick rough, he’s had a lot of success at U.S. Opens, and certainly it would be a remarkable story if he does get in contention, but it’s going to require very sharp skills and skills that Phil Mickelson doesn’t always shine with as far as hitting fairways and being extremely strategic in that sense.
“So I think we’re all curious to see both how he plays and how he’s received.”