News & Opinion

Fox’s birthday bash fetes party pooper

Did you know that Phil Mickelson turned 48 on Saturday? Fox Sports sure did. The official network of the U.S. Open turned the first half of its third-round coverage into a birthday party for Lefty, as if the weekend of a major championship were the perfect time and place to celebrate such a thing.

Thank goodness Tiger Woods was born Dec. 30.

As a handful of early storylines developed at Shinnecock Hills, Fox instead devoted a shameless amount of its air to a player who began the day six strokes over par, 10 shots off the lead and, most significantly, was doing nothing on his scorecard to warrant such vast attention. If Mickelson had strung together a few birdies and climbed into semi-contention, then OK, he becomes a storyline, too.

Fox just loves its headliners. Your Aunt Beatrice isn’t going to stick with the telecast to watch Tony Finau shoot a 66. One suspects the network was reluctant to show cut projections Friday afternoon because so many big names weren’t going to be around for the weekend. Ratings determine success. A heavy dose of Mickelson’s meaningless golf was considered more important than the fine play of Finau or Daniel Berger.

Of course, this Phil-a-fest didn’t end well. The birthday boy ran after his bogey putt at the 13th as it raced past the hole toward oblivion, then struck his ball again before it came to rest. So startling was this breach of conduct – and Rule 14-5 (“Playing Moving Ball”), according to the USGA – that Fox anchor Joe Buck, not a man prone to verbal lapses, struggled to describe what he’d just seen.

“His speed has been terrible,” said lead analyst Paul Azinger, who wasn’t referring to the pace of Mickelson’s jog. Azinger later would give Lefty “the benefit of the doubt” regarding his explanation that he took the two-stroke penalty for strategic purposes – Mickelson said he had no chance of getting up and down from where the ball eventually would have stopped – thus bypassing a more appropriate explanation for his behavior.

It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.

And it’s not a U.S. Open unless the crazy stuff is breaking out, or being said, and Fox did a pretty nice job of keeping up with all of the commotion. It grabbed an interview from Sky Sports in which Zach Johnson declared, “Shinnecock is as good as it gets, but unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course.”

Azinger earned his stripes with a grin and a strong retort: “If the course is gone, it’s gone. That doesn’t make it any less exciting to watch. It’s going to be compelling. Somebody’s going to hoist that trophytomorrow. Somebody is going to make history, whether the golf course is gone or not.”

On a day that began with Dustin Johnson in control, his fiancee’s father, former hockey great Wayne Gretzky, displayed uncharacteristic candor in an interview with Shane Bacon and Brad Faxon. Gretzky said that after Johnson let the 2015 U.S. Open slip away with a three-putt from 12 feet, the two played golf in Idaho every day for almost three weeks.

“If something like that happened to me, I would be a mess,” the Great One said. “I wouldn’t be able to play in some pickup hockey game. People think those tough losses just roll off his back, but he took it as hard as anybody. He took it like a man and never blamed anyone.”

All of which is worth keeping in mind during today’s final round. Johnson’s 2016 U.S. Open victory seemed to dramatically alter his competitive identity, but he still has a spotty history when it comes to finishing big events, and his performance Saturday did nothing to suggest those struggles are over.

“I see three guys laying in the weeds,” Azinger said before the leaders headed out Saturday afternoon. “Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler. We’ll see how Johnson reacts on one more night’s sleep.”

Not exactly prophetic, but as Meatloaf pointed out, two out of three ain’t bad.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: John@HawkGolf.biz