Tour Confidential: Phil Mickelson won’t actually skip the U.S. Open, will he?

June 5, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Phil Mickelson, citing a conflict with his daughter’s high school graduation, has informed the USGA that he doesn’t intend to play in the U.S. Open. Considering that Mickelson turns 47 this month and needs an Open victory to complete the career grand slam, how surprised are you by his decision? How many more quality chances will he have to win the Open?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Very, given the hole in his career grand slam resume. I’ve already received a number of emails from friends saying, “There’s got to be more to this story.” Such are the times we live in. But I’m going to take a break from the cynicism of our age and take this as the word of a guy who just really wants to be there with his daughter. Good for him. He’s already older than Hale Irwin was when he became the oldest winner of an Open. And winning hasn’t gotten any easier. I suspect we’re down to a count-on-one-hand number of legit chances.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, gentle Josh, do no fret: I believe between now and the Thursday bell of U.S. Open week, all will be resolved. If not, I would urge FOX to bring in Sir Bones as a guest commentator. As for Phil’s remaining chances, this one is the first best one of the rest of his life. Actually, with its wide fairways and LONG holes, and greens that require the fellas to play the ball in the air, this course should be ideal for him. Although it is a trudge.

Josh Berhow, producer, GOLF (@Josh_Berhow): I was extremely surprised by his decision, as I think most were. Phil is a huge storyline every major, and especially when it comes to our national championship. And for someone who is already a fan favorite wherever the Tour stops, I think this will just make the galleries appreciate him more. “He skips golf to do dad things, too!” I also think his decision would be different if his daughter wasn’t giving a speech during the ceremony. He has majors, he has more money than he’ll ever need, and he’s still sharp and healthy enough to contend in (a few more) future Opens. All that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if something came up and it worked out for Phil to be in Erin Hills after all.

Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Given the number of times he’s prioritized wife and kids, starting at Pinehurst in 1999, I’m not surprised by this decision. That’s been Phil’s MO for a good while and there’s something refreshing about it. I remember Jack Nicklaus leaving after a Friday round of a tournament years ago to go see his son play high school football, and I thought that was really great. I’m actually surprised that this doesn’t happen more often, but then most families know what they’re getting into when mom or dad is a sports professional. You just learn that there will be missed moments because of the parent’s work. I’m with Mr. Berhow here, however–maybe there will still be some way for Phil to be able to juggle both tasks. This is the U.S. Open, and as the Memorial proved, he’s still a guy capable of a strong showing.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Not surprised at all. Phil has always put his family first, and although I’m sure he would dearly love to win a U.S. Open, he gets one chance to watch his oldest daughter graduate and give a speech at the ceremony, and he is not going to miss it. It’s a sacrifice his daughter will never forget. And I’m not going down the “things will work out and he’ll be there” camp. The USGA, to their credit, doesn’t give out favors, and I wouldn’t expect them to start now by gifting Phil a first off pairing on Thursday. Well done, Phil.

2. In his 2000 Sportsman of the Year feature about Tiger Woods, the late, great Frank Deford proved to be eerily prescient when he wrote: “Tiger is such an extraordinary champion and so widely admired that we have granted him a sort of spiritual amnesty. His persona is still insulated by his deeds, his misjudgments immunized by his youth. Sometime soon, though, we will weary of the tedium of his persistent success and start peering more deeply into that heavenly smile and beyond those steely eyes. Won’t we? Because that’s the nature of the beast—us. This, right now, may be the best Tiger will ever have it. Until, that is, he becomes a Grand Old Man, and we fall in love with him again.” Look 10 to 15 years down the road. Where will Tiger be in his life?

Sens: Having taken a break from cynicism moments ago, I’ll return to it now. I don’t believe people change that much. Tiger will be the same guy he’s always been. But it’s not hard to imagine his public image softening into that of a gentler elder statesmen, presiding as a tournament host, sharing gauzy reflections from the broadcast tower, cutting ribbons on his latest designs, etc.

Berhow: Missing golf. He’ll still be involved in the sport with his foundation and hosting events and designing courses, but I think he’s truly going to miss competing on Tour. More than most.

Passov: Maybe the more penetrating question is where is Tiger going to be 10 to 15 months from now. As for his daily schedule 10 to 15 years hence, I could see him embracing the PGA Tour Champions much more than Jack Nicklaus did. Tour life seems to be the only comfort zone Tiger has had, and if healthy, he’d probably enjoy the needling and competition as he once did. He went on record in April as saying he would ask Steve Stricker to pair with him in the Legends of Golf, so at least he’s given it some thought.

Bamberger: Excellent rediscovery of another insightful Deford paragraph, Mark Godich. Life is long, if you’re lucky. But change is hard. Tiger is a smart person, but there hasn’t been much evidence that Tiger is reflective or introspective person. Most world-class athletes, at the peak of their powers, are not. There is nothing left for Tiger to prove in golf. Once he realizes and accepts that, I think he will work on other things. My guess is 15 years from now, Tiger will be a true ceremonial golfer, able to compete and maybe win now and again on sheer ability. He will be drug-free, alcohol-free and in some kind of stable relationship. Taking a cue from his own parents, I expect he will be super-involved in the lives of his children. Winning the U.S. Open by 15 will seem like it happened in another lifetime, by another person.

Wood: Happy.

3. Weather delays aside, the Memorial produced quite the finish. Jason Dufner prevailed, but Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Justin Thomas and Matt Kuchar were in or around the lead on Sunday. Who among the also-rans will take the most away from the week?

Bamberger: Dustin Johnson. He missed the cut, went to Erin Hills and got himself acclimated on a bombers course the likes of which the U.S. Open has never been played on before.

Sens: These sorts of things are often less about what really happened than they are about how a player chooses to see things. So I’ll go with Fowler, in part because he played the best on Sunday of the non-winners but also because he’s got the kind of attitude that draws the positives from things.

Berhow: Bubba has had a weird year with only two top 10s and missed cuts in the two biggest events of 2017. His ball-striking and putting were remarkably better than what he’s done previously this year. He was heckled, grimaced after missed putts, threw fits after erratic drives and finished T6. All is back to normal.

Passov: I’m with Mr. Berhow here, in that many of us have been asking the question, Where has Bubba Watson gone? He was so much in the hunt of will he or won’t he make the Ryder Cup team just last September. He barely missed out, then mostly disappeared. I’ve never been his biggest fan, but his unique personality, shotmaking skills, length and Tour wins make him one of the more colorful personalities in the game, and so I like to see him back in contention. Hopefully a springboard for him.

4. During the Memorial telecast, we were treated to footage from Golf Channel’s documentary on Jack Nicklaus, in which today’s stars were shown the Golden Bear’s list of accomplishments and asked what impressed them most. The list is long and impressive: the 18 major titles, the 19 runner-up finishes in majors, never finishing worse than sixth at the British Open from 1966 to ’80, among a slew of feats. What is Jack’s greatest accomplishment?

Sens: The 19 runner-ups is staggering. To think how close Tiger came to chasing 37 career majors instead of 18.

Berhow: Hard to argue with the 19 runner-up finishes, but finishing in the top five in 56 majors isn’t bad, either.

Passov: Both are incredible stats. The 37 top-two finishes in majors has always astounded me. How about this record for longevity–teeing it up in 154 straight majors for which he was eligible, from the 1957 U.S. Open through the 1998 U.S. Open. Picture Jordan Spieth teeing it up at the 2055 U.S. Open and you get an idea of what this is. But c’mon. His greatest accomplishment is still winning the 1986 Masters with a final-round 65, back-nine 30, at the age of 46. No tournament can compare for emotion, excitement and surprise.

Bamberger: Some of his accomplishments cannot be contained on a list: his 55-year marriage to Barbara Nicklaus, his ability to keep a sense of balance in his life, his commitment to his children and grandchildren. The longevity, as Joe notes, is astounding. His UTTER DOMINATION of the ‘70s, with all the extraordinary players he faced then, to me takes the (German Chocolate) cake. Forty majors, eight wins and only five events where HE WAS NOT IN THE TOP 10. With a busy home life and a busy business life, he came to play every single time.

Wood: The sheer volume of these numbers is absolutely overwhelming. I’ll always remember the ‘86 Masters not only for his impossible comeback, but for who he beat on that Sunday. Norman, Ballesteros, Kite, Pavin, Watson, Price, Stewart … seemingly every big gun of that era was on the leaderboard, and Jack took them all down. I would have loved to have experienced the intimidation factor Jack brought to the golf course and measure it against Tiger’s. There were times Tiger walked onto a driving range in his red shirt on Sunday, and you could just feel the air go out of everyone else’s balloons. There was a feeling of “We can’t beat that guy.” I imagine it was very much the same when Jack showed up in the hunt. He just never seemed to give a tournament away. Ever.

5. Hank Haney called into question a stroke that Bernhard Langer used with his long putter during his victory at the Senior PGA Championship. Haney suggested that Langer was anchoring his left arm and hand against his chest. What did you see?

Sens: On the video that was circulating, it certainly looks like Langer’s left wrist/part of his forearm is resting against his chest. But it’s a straight-on angle, so it’s hard to tell for certain. I also haven’t seen a lot of Langer lately, so maybe the stroke Haney was looking at was an aberration. I’m sure we’ll be getting lots more looks at Langer putting from all angles in tournaments to come, and we can all analyze that footage as if it were the Zapruder film.

Berhow: Hard to tell if it’s resting against a loose shirt or his chest. Either way, if the governing bodies weren’t aware of this before, they are now, and I’m guessing Langer’s form will, ahem, change going forward, if necessary.

Passov: My wife Betsy looked at this and before I had even prepped her and said, “I thought they made that illegal.” It does appear awfully close, but I’d be pretty shocked if he’s had this thing under control all year, with no questions asked, and he suddenly slipped into the pre-embargo mode.

Bamberger: Haney is saying what I have heard other senior tour players saying. But the fact is, the players with whom he is paired are the first line of defense. If they think the stroke is not legal, they need to say something. As far as I know, none has. Of course, it’s not just the position of the left hand that needs monitoring when a righty is using the long putter and a split grip. A righthanded player may not hold his right arm rigidly against his body, either. Langer is close in this regard, too.

6. U.S. Open sectional qualifying is scheduled for Monday, which means the start of the Open is less than two weeks away. Who’s your favorite right here and now, and who is your sleeper pick?

Passov: Jordan Spieth is playing very good golf again. He won the U.S. Open at the links-like Chambers Bay in 2015, and he has prior success at Erin Hills, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2011 U.S. Amateur and owning a 2-up lead with five holes to play before losing. He’s my pick to win. My dark horse at the moment is three-time Tour winner Russell Henley, who won the Shell Houston Open in April. Henley posted one of the best rounds at Erin Hills in the 2011 U.S. Amateur qualifying, a three-under-par 69 and lost in the round of 32 of match play by the narrowest of margins, losing a 2-up lead with two holes to play to eventual finalist Patrick Cantlay.

Berhow: No one likes the guy who picks the No. 1 player in the world, but I’m going to be the guy who picks the No. 1 player in the world. Erin Hills will be brutally long, and Opens are grueling. DJ, as we know, doesn’t let much bother him. Sometimes the correct answer is the most obvious answer. Oh, and I like Justin Rose, too.

Bamberger: My favorite is Phil. My sleeper is Phil. And if Phil doesn’t play, I’m going with Phil.

Sens: I like Joe’s Spieth pick. Does Sergio qualify as a sleeper?