Apologies to Phil Mickelson, but the most compelling narrative of this week’s US Open was been utterly ruined by Tiger Woods’ right foot.
Apparently, that foot hit the accelerator pedal instead of the brake on Hawthorne Boulevard in Los Angeles back in February. Thus Tiger’s courtesy SUV was travelling at double the speed limit when it left the road and crashed. The resulting injuries have put him out of golf indefinitely.
The return to what many people call his finest hour – although it can equally be described as the end of his true era of dominance – has been denied us.
In 2008, Woods won the US Open at Torrey Pines famously “on one leg”, due to ligament damage in his left knee (it helps to identify which side Tiger’s injuries are on, given there’s been so many of them).
His greatest moment? But also the end of an era
After that, we thought, truly nothing was beyond him. If he could win a major on a broken leg (it wasn’t broken, but that’s somehow entered the legend, and it makes for a better story) he could do anything, right?
Actually the opposite turned out to be true. He didn’t win another major for 11 years, bogged down with injuries, and in personal scandal for a time.
After victory at Torrey, Tiger had won 12 majors in 34 starts since the turn of the century. Better than a one in three record, in possibly the toughest sport to dominate because of the vagaries of chance involved and 155 opponents – some of them pretty good – every time. It’s still downright astonishing.
Coming back to Torrey for a major – they go every January for a PGA Tour event – underlines the change in the sport even since 2008, and not just because of Woods’ absence.
Who knows if he would have competed this week. He was ailing with back trouble at the start of the year so he might not have made it all. Had he done so, most of the money on him would have been sentimental.
Phil’s got more chances, but surely not here
And, although we hesitate to write him off again, the same goes for Mickelson. The new PGA champion is going for the one major title that still eludes him, on his “hometown” course.
We can be reasonably sure that the win at Kiawah Island wasn’t just lightning in a bottle. Mickelson has worked incredibly hard to stay competitive at age 50, not just on the physical stuff but also on the mental side.
On a favourable course, in good conditions – specifically, the Open or the Masters – Phil could quite easily extend his new record as the eldest winner of a major championship. But one suspects the USGA set up for Torrey, and his personal struggles there lately, will deny him the career Grand Slam again.
Bombing it so far the rough doesn’t matter
The US Open has become the pure bombers’ major. The set-up was traditionally supposed to take the driver out of the hands of the best to ensure they stayed in play. Instead it’s come to favour those who swing away and damn the consequences.
The last four US Opens prove the point. It’s not to decry the abilities of champions Brooks Koepka, Gary Woodland and Bryson DeChambeau at their all-round game. But their chief element is power.
Winged Foot was the final proof. The further Bryson could hit it, the shorter iron he needed to muscle or manufacture his way out of the gnarly rough to the putting surface. The poa anna greens at Torrey are no way as scary as those at Winged Foot.
DeChambeau is, of course, given to boasting about his advantage almost everywhere he plays. On the traditional US Open set-up, it’s actually accurate.
As an aside, however, this might be the last time that the US Open is vulnerable to those who bomb and gouge with impunity.
Incoming chief executive Mike Whan, who replaces Mike Davis this summer, was quoted last week as wondering what everybody was so scared of about bifurcation between the elite game and the rest. That seems a fairly unequivocal indication he’s up for a reined-in ball at USGA events.
If the USGA wants a return to their treasured traditional values, they need players to be punished for being off the short grass. That quite clearly isn’t happening now.
The main contenders this week
Anyway, who wins? DeChambeau is obviously to be feared in this set-up.
Not often recalled is that Lee Westwood was a makeable putt away from joining the Woods-Rocco Mediate play-off in 2008. 13 years on, rejuvenated and married last week in Las Vegas, the course does play into Westy’s strengths and away from his weaknesses.
He’s worth an each way shout. I also like Torrey specialists like Adam Scott and Justin Rose. Or Jon Rahm – just a few hours out of isolation, and wouldn’t that be the perfect full-stop on golf’s Covid era.
But like many – I’d like to be original but it’s just too tempting – I’m favouring the other prominent San Diegan.
Xander Schauffele had two chances to unseat Hideki Matsuyama on the final day at Augusta and fell short. He’s been in at the death of a few of these now to know exactly what he has to do.
He can bomb and gouge it with the best of them. One could easily argue he’s the best player in the world now currently major-less. X marks this spot.