BROOKLINE, Mass. — He may be the biggest story in professional golf. He may even be the biggest story in all of sports. But nobody’s star — not even Phil Mickelson’s — is big enough to blot out the U.S. Open.
This week, for the first time since Mickelson placed himself at the center of golf’s most incendiary saga in decades, he will compete again on U.S. soil. At Brookline, the energy around Phil is present as ever, but the excitement is muted. Even as Mickelson flashes his trademark smiles and outstretched thumbs, the crowds that flock to him seem more in awe of his presence than doting over it.
There is a novelty to Phil being here, in a place that has not hosted a major championship in a very long while, at a tournament with which he shares so much history. Even if that novelty comes with controversy, and perhaps because of it. And it is a novelty shared by golf fans worldwide.
But it is not a novelty that will be watched breathlessly by NBC’s coverage from The Country Club. Not at a major championship in which, as of Tuesday afternoon, Mickelson plays only a supporting role. And particularly not with the biggest field of the year promising wall-to-wall entertainment.
Phil will be covered fairly, NBC Golf lead producer Tommy Roy insists, but if you’re seeking drama, perhaps it’s best to turn to TMZ.
“Yeah, I’m glad to [discuss it],” Tommy Roy said. “Bottom line is no matter what player we end up showing — if they’re coming off a significant finish in an event the week before — we’re going to mention it. Obviously, [RBC Canadian Open winner Rory McIlroy], we’re going to show him. We’re going to mention he won in Canada. If we show a LIV player who won last week, that will be mentioned. That’s being journalistically sound. We’re not going to shy away from something like that.
“But in terms of getting into fracturing the game of golf and all that, we’re not doing that. This is U.S. Open week now, and we’re not talking about that stuff.”
The Phil Question — that being: how to cover a man whose decisions and words have both shaped the sport and draped it in controversy? — hangs heavy over Roy and his NBC team at Brookline. They will be the first to answer it, and while there’s still much to learn about what precisely that answer will look like, there’s little doubt it will be received controversially.
“I think there’s one way to cover it: Journalistically,” said Dan Hicks, who will be the voice of NBC’s coverage. “If a guy’s in contention, you cover him. You mention that he’s part of the LIV Tour. You cover that because that’s been obviously a gigantic talking point, and then you see where the championship takes you from there.”
This is, of course, the safest answer, but it’s also the truest one. If Phil shoots 86 on Thursday, his story isn’t central to Roy or Hicks. But if he shoots 67 and enters Friday tied for the lead, suddenly, the conversation has more legs.
“That’s the great thing about live sports. It’s unscripted,” Hicks said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Sitting here right now, we can’t predict what the field is going to be. If hypothetically Dustin Johnson is coming down the back nine looking for his third major championship, there might have been things that happened during the week that we’ll have to deal with. Maybe it’s something that Dustin Johnson added to his whole reasoning why he’s playing over there or whatever.”
So where does that leave NBC at the U.S. Open? Watching and waiting, but certainly not wallowing.
“It’s a reactionary type of thing, but in the basic, basic journalistic ethics, you cover the people that are playing in the U.S. Open,” Hicks said. “You cover them appropriately depending on where they are on the leaderboard.”