Everybody knows how to root at a game. You pick “your” team. But how do you engage your emotions at a great golf tournament such as this week’s U.S. Open? In an era that no longer has one dominant player, at a moment when the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world are 0 for 76 in the major championships, how do you get a jolt worthy of the event?
My way is to start with a few players who appeal to you. Then as the week unfolds, let other characters emerge — players you barely know or who have never truly revealed themselves, such as Graeme McDowell last year — and add ’em to your list for Sunday yelling. Give me: Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy.
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.
“It’s definitely not fun. You try to look like you’re having fun. But it’s just not,” said the 6-foot-5 Johnson. At Pebble Beach, “I really got fast [after a triple bogey at the second hole] — walk fast, swing fast, went through my routine fast. At the PGA, I did everything more slowly. Everybody remembers [the penalty after ruling in a fairway bunker at] the 18th hole. But I’d birdied the 16th and 17th holes to get in that position.”
Congressional is always a bombers course and a spot for symbolic early-career wins by Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Craig Stadler and Anthony Kim. Johnson fits the mold.
If golf itself, the spirit of the sport, could pick its own winner of this U.S. Open, the only story line that might rival Mickelson, 41, would be McIlroy. Long ago, Jack Nicklaus said that the victory most important to his career was his U.S. Open win at age 21 because it took the pressure off him forever. He had knocked off the biggest one early.
Forget, for a moment, about McIlroy’s huge talent. Consider his remarks after making a goodwill mission to Haiti for UNICEF last week. Could golf use this guy?
“I thought I had perspective before going to Haiti,” said McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, home of hard history. “Then actually seeing it, you feel so lucky to sit here and drink a bottle of water, just the normal things. . . . We drove past the presidential palace, and the dome is just — just hanging off. I’ve got a picture of it on my phone. If they can’t even repair [that], think how much help they need. It’s not just Haiti; there’s countries all over the world that are having the same problems.”
On the subject of his supposedly inevitable future as a multiple major champion, he said, “There’s no point in people saying it when you’re not one. It’s very flattering. I need to do it first and I haven’t done it. I need to play the golf I’m capable of.”
So, it sure wouldn’t kill golf to have McIlroy as Open champ. Or Westwood, Johnson or Mickelson. But we’re flexible. The next few days will no doubt lengthen our list.