News & Opinion

Mickelson’s likely WD at Open exposes USGA flaw

DUBLIN, Ohio – The circle feels complete.

Eighteen years ago, Payne Stewart cupped Phil Mickelson’s face on Pinehurst’s 18th green after holing the putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open and consoled him by saying, “You’re going to love being a father!”

Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was on the verge of going into labor with their first child, and Mickelson had promised to walk off the course and catch a flight home, even during a Monday playoff, if his pager sounded.

Saturday, Mickelson confirmed his plan to walk away from the 2017 U.S. Open because that much-anticipated first child, Amanda, is going to graduate from high school. Her ceremony starts at noon Thursday in California, during the Open’s first round at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Amanda is the class president and valedictorian and will deliver the commencement speech, so Dad isn’t going to miss it.

Mickelson hasn’t officially withdrawn yet, but he wanted to make U.S. Golf Association officials aware of his scheduling conflict and the likelihood that he won’t play so that the pairings can be adjusted and an undetermined alternate will be ready.

“It’s the tournament I want to win most,” Mickelson said of the Open, the only Grand Slam event that he hasn’t won. “But this is one of those moments you look back on in life. You need to be there. It wasn't something that we discussed, because it really wasn't much of a decision.''

Mickelson’s unusual situation and the consideration he is showing the alternate who may get his Open berth offers the USGA a chance to revise its policies and show alternates equal consideration.

Currently, alternates are not allowed to play practice rounds. They can use the practice range and walk the course. Last year, the USGA withheld six Open spots until Sunday night before the Open because six players still could mathematically move into the top 60 in the world rankings with good finishes at the PGA Tour event in Memphis or at the European Tour event in Austria and qualify. No players did, and all six spots were released Sunday night.

The late decision put those players at a slight competitive disadvantage because they weren’t able to visit Oakmont the week before and play, as many Tour players did.

Mickelson’s only hope of playing at Erin Hills is if his daughter’s school changes the time for graduation, a big ask less than two weeks before the ceremony, or if he draws a late-afternoon tee time for the first round and bad weather rolls in and delays play for several hours, allowing him enough time to fly to Milwaukee. 

It’s too soon to know when Mickelson will make his decision. He’ll surely check weather forecasts for greater Milwaukee during Open week. Because it’s likely he won’t play, the USGA should relax its provision against allowing alternates on the course. If Mickelson waits untilThursday morning, say, his replacement would have to play Erin Hills without so much as a practice round. 

Why not grant full practice-round access for the top two alternates after today’s sectional qualifying is complete? Two more sets of footprints at Erin Hills on top of the 156 other players in practice rounds wouldn’t make a difference, and it would help them gain important course knowledge. If any alternate moves into the field during the week, then the next alternate on the list moves up and is granted practice-round access.

It would be a shame if Mickelson, who turns 47 on the Sunday of the Open, doesn’t get to continue his Quixotic quest, although his daughter’s commencement speech will be a moment to remember for the rest of his life.

It also would be a shame if the alternate who would replace Mickelson (or any other alternate who would gain a spot at the 11th hour) doesn’t have an equal opportunity to prepare. The Open always should be a fair fight.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle