The first two are on noble golf quests. Westwood craves his first major championship at age 38, after going 0 for 52 so far. He’s due and deserving. Mickelson, an Open runner-up five times, seems close to salivating — or to kissing new USGA executive director Mike Davis, who wants to make the Open more like the Masters and incorporate “recovery skills.” Say “hallelujah,” Phil.
The latter pair may be the best candidates for Next Great Player. But both are trying to recover from mortifying last-round failures in majors that destroy some young talents. McIlroy, 22, led the Masters by four shots then skied to 80 in the final round. The monstrously long Johnson, 26, led last year’s U.S. Open by three shots, then blew sky high before he ever reached the fourth tee and shot 82 when 76 would’ve won.
Pressure and expectation might weigh more heavily on Westwood than any player here. He arrives with an aura of comes-the-moment, comes-the-man. With Tiger Woods out and Mickelson’s game chilly since January, whom should he fear? If not now, when?
“It’s a fine line between, when you do get really close to it, becoming frustrated but still seeing the positives in it. . . . It is a tricky balancing act, also going in with expectations but playing with a freedom, as well,” said Westwood, who was born and lives in Worksop, England, where every pub stool in town should be engraved “Waiting for Westy.”
“If you’re any good and mentally right, you learn to take the positives out of anything, even when you maybe finish second and thought you should have won one of these,” he said. But the way he ticks off the names of the near-misses — Turnberry, Hazeltine, Augusta and St. Andrews — you fret for him. “I seem to be responding well, though obviously I’d love to win one.”
In a decade, Mickelson has gone from an ill-at-ease-in-his-skin star, hounded about why he wasn’t greater, to one of the most mature and genuine athletes. “I really believe that I can win this tournament. But just as when I was trying to win my first major [after starting 0 for 46], if you focus so much on the result, so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way. So I’m trying not to think about winning as much as I am trying to enjoy the challenge..”
Key: Is Phil’s putting stroke sharp enough?
Perhaps the most empathy goes to Johnson. There’s a long learning curve after an Open choke. He says he had gotten over the 82 by the “the next morning when I woke up.” Hmmmm. Only when he talks about the blown three-shot leads of Nick Watney and McIlroy in the last round at the PGA and Masters does he seem more candid.