Tour Confidential: Matt Fitzpatrick’s clutch win, The Country Club, Phil’s weird week
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Matthew Fitzpatrick’s U.S. Open win, The Country Club as a U.S. Open venue and Phil Mickelson’s strange week.
1. Matt Fitzpatrick shook two monkeys off his back at the U.S. Open at The Country Club Sunday: winning his first major and also his first professional title in the U.S. A pair of steady two-under 68s on the weekend helped him edge Will Zalatoris by a stroke. What most jumps out at you about how Fitzpatrick got it done?
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (jess_marksbury): His composure was really evident today. He was clearly pumped for the good things that happened to him but he never seemed down or upset about any adversity. He was comfortable — a very tough thing to be when you’re vying for your first major.
Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): I had all but written him off after his bogies at 10 and 11. At that point, it felt like he had lost his magic — and his nerve. But he showed great fortitude in bouncing back with birds at 13 and 15. I also loved how he was yukking up with caddie, Billy Foster, after holing out on 17. Fitz still needed at worst a par on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open to secure his first major title and he looked like he was playing a $5 skins game with his buds. Cool customer.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): What also struck me was the way he stayed in rhythm, something you don’t always see from someone chasing their first big one. Fitzpatrick plays quickly. And he continued to, even as the pressure mounted. No turning into a lawn statue. That approach out of the bunker on 18 was a great case in point. He took some time deciding what to do, but once he was over the ball, he pulled the trigger with the same dispatch he’d shown all day. There wasn’t any Hamlet in him. No hemming and hawing. He clearly trusted what he was doing.
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Hand up, I didn’t think Fitzpatrick had this sort of performance in him. With a bare resume (on this side of the pond), I expected him to shrink when the lights burned their brightest. Boy, was I wrong. Fitzpatrick was a certified killer on Sunday, and he stepped up and hit several all-world golf shots. His ability to respond when things got tight was impressive.
2. NBC analyst Paul Azinger called Fitzpatrick’s Sunday “one of the best final-round ball-striking performances in a major championship that you will ever see.” Fair assessment, or is Zinger falling prey to recency bias?
Marksbury: It seems like it’s hard to avoid recency bias in golf commentating, but in Azinger’s defense, Fitz’s stats really tell the story: 11 of 14 fairways on Sunday (his most of the week), and an incredible 17 of 18 greens in regulation. I mean, wow. The next-closest players to that stat were Denny McCarthy and Collin Morikawa with 15. So yeah, I think that comment may have merit.
Bastable: Zinger has a tendency for delivering analysis with his gut, but as Jess’ stat dive proves, Fitzpatrick’s final round was indeed a masterclass in ballstrking. Missing just one green on a U.S. Open Sunday? That’s silly good. His fairway bunker shot on 18 was stunning. After his round, Fitzpatrick admitted the bunker was the one place he didn’t want to miss with his drive, and yet all he did after that squirrelly shot was step into the trap and hit one of the purest long sand shots you’ll ever see, especially under such intense pressure. The slow-mo replay on NBC beautifully captured just how squarely he caught the ball. Clutch city.
Sens: He put on a show. Best we’ve ever seen? So hard to compare. Woods playing four days at the Old Course without finding a single bunker was certainly up there with the best I’ve seen. Or Faldo parring all 18 at Muirfield in ‘87. That said, Azinger was right there with Faldo, so he’d be in a better position to say which was more impressive.
Melton: It was certainly one of the best final-round ball-striking performances that I’ve ever seen. But then again, this was only the second men’s major I’ve ever covered on the ground. Still, it was a sight to behold.
3. The old-timey design at The Country Club, where only nine players finished under par, was roundly praised by the field; there were also few quibbles from players about the course setup, which featured, as expected, dense but graduated rough and slippery greens. Good site selection and setup all around?
Marksbury: Most definitely. I love when the Open is staged on classic courses in big-time markets. There’s something special about The Country Club. I was there for Matt’s U.S. Am win in 2013, and the atmosphere was electric then, too. Book another one, stat!
Sens: That was as good as it gets in terms of quality of course and setup. Let’s not forget the choice of routing. Bringing that little par 3 back into the fold was a great move, too.
Bastable: It was great fun, with, at times, more of a British Open than U.S. Open feel, with all the fairway runoffs and blind shots. Rory McIlroy endorsed the course with the exception of what he described as a few “funky tee shots” — aka, drives that made him uncomfortable. Shots that take the best players out of their comfort zones? Yes, please, more of that. Sens is right about the 11th. A true mighty mite. It played a mere 108 yards on Sunday, and still the scoring average was north of par. Delightful.
Melton: The Country Club is sick. A proper test and a proper golf course to contest our national open. I can’t wait for them to come back.
4. In his much-anticipated return to professional golf on U.S. soil, Phil Mickelson shot 78-73 to miss the cut by nine — but his form was secondary. The real storyline was how American fans — and his fellow players — would receive Mickelson after his controversial remarks about his dealings with the Saudi-financed LIV Golf series. Generally, the galleries seemed to welcome him back with open arms. Did that surprise you, and did anything else strike you about his week in Boston?
Marksbury: Phil spent three decades building an adoring fan base, so I can’t say I’m too surprised that he appeared to have retained much of that love in Boston. What did surprise me was his lackluster play, especially in the opening round. I realize it was perhaps far-fetched to think he would contend, but I certainly expected something more than the 78 he gave us on Thursday.
Sens: Being from the Boston area, I was surprised there wasn’t more needling of Phil. All I heard were a few wisecracks by people shouting out gambling lines. But Jessica’s right. Three decades of goodwill goes a long way. I was not at all surprised by his scruffy play. You combine a long layoff with all the things he must have swirling in his head–to say nothing of the difficulty of the course–and I don’t know how he could have put up any kind of scores. The mental part to me is most striking. He looks and sounds like a man bearing a heavy psychic load.
Bastable: Yeah, that came across in his pre-tournament, deer-in-the-headlights press conference, which was a combination of weird, unsettling and depressing. Surely Phil knew what difficult questions were coming but virtually all of his answers/non-answers were deeply dissatisfactory. It was a soulless performance from one of the game’s great showmen, or ex-showmen. As Sens said, he was never going to make the cut. Too much noise, and we saw a week ago in London that his game is not sharp.
Melton: The warm response from the fans did not surprise me much. Phil’s spent 30+ years fostering goodwill among fans, and a rocky few months (no matter how rocky they might’ve been) wasn’t gonna tarnish that.
5. In response to Twitter complaints about overly commercialized U.S. Open coverage, USGA CEO Mike Whan tweeted: “I’m on it! We have the best sports production team in the world here with our partner NBC Sports…and if the amount of interruptions are problematic, we will work with our partner to do better!” What’s the solution here? Advertisers obviously want eyes on their spots when the audience is most attentive (i.e., late in rounds), and monstrous purses — Fitzpatrick won $3.15 million, up from the $2.25 Jon Rahm collected a year ago — don’t fund themselves. What’s the happy medium here?
Marksbury: I’m not sure how realistic or feasible it is, but putting a limit on commercials during, say, the last hour of coverage would be a nice place to start. Or perhaps charging ultra-premium prices for those later, fewer-and-farther between time slots, like the Super Bowl does. Maybe they already do this to some degree? I don’t know. The encouraging thing is that Mike Whan is listening, and it’s clear he values the viewer experience.
Sens: Why not have the option of a commercial-free premium package? You can’t handle commercials, pay a little extra, as you do on any number of streaming platforms. What the griping and the governing body’s response to it hammer home to me, though, is how much has changed in our world as well. In my memory, there have always been a ton of commercials. But attention spans are short and the need for immediate gratification is greater than ever. And the USGA, which back in the day used to listen to no one, now appears to have rabbit ears.
Bastable: Whan mixing it up with a pitchfork-toting Twitter mob? You had to love that. Not a page you would have seen in Mike Davis’ playbook. I think my smart colleagues have cracked it: simulcast the coverage on Peacock commercial-free. NBC’s partner would pick up a bunch of new subscribers, and ad-averse fans would probably be happy to pay the $4.99 monthly fee — even if they only use the service for a round or two.
Melton: I would pay a hefty sum for a commercial-free option, and I’m certain I’m not alone. My colleagues above nailed it.
6. The U.S. Open, as ever, shined a spotlight on a handful of players who we don’t typically see in the mix week-to-week on the PGA Tour. From the under-the-radar contenders, who was your favorite story of the week?
Marksbury: Not sure how under-the-radar he is anymore, but Joel Dahmen is a breath of fresh air. From his candid interviews to his unapologetic love of beer, he just seems like a really relatable and fun guy who you’d love to hang out with.
Sens: I’m going to brazenly poach from Bastable here. Loved his tale of Collum Tarren, who for the second time showed up to play in a U.S. Open, only to discover that his clubs hadn’t made it with him
Bastable: Then I too shall brazenly poach, from our own Nick Piastowski, who on Saturday profiled Matthew NeSmith. The world No. 166 was just five off the lead after 54 holes. His Sunday didn’t work out so well — he shot 76 to finish T37 — but NeSmith still delivered to Nick one of the lines of the week, when describing his mantra: “It’s OK to suck. I mean, if I’m going to struggle, that’s totally fine.”
Melton: Call me a homer, but I’ve got to give some love to my fellow Longhorn Travis Vick. A few weeks after winning a national title for Texas, he earns the low-am medal at the U.S. Open. Pretty sweet way to kick off the summer.