News & Opinion

In this strangest of years, U.S. Open sets up for another doozy

Phil Mickelson Round 1 2020 Travelers Championship
At age 50, Phil Mickelson summoned his magic through 36 holes to lead the Travelers Championship before fading from contention on the weekend.

Phil Mickelson, having been granted an exemption via the world ranking, will return to Winged Foot for one of golf's great sequels: U.S. Open vs. Mickelson

OK, the excitement proved fleeting. The magic faded for Phil Mickelson on the weekend at the Travelers Championship.

Nevertheless, he’s in. And on a virally vexed day in late June, that’s pretty much all you need to know about a 2020 U.S. Open that has yet to be played.

In binge-watching terms, episode 120 of the national championship series is scheduled for Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY. “Scheduled for” remains the operative term as coronavirus numbers continue to fluctuate.

To be certain, it will be an artificially inseminated, unconventional Open. Roy McAvoy won’t be playing, nor any other qualifiers, and there might be no galleries. The merchandise tent, normally massive in scale, could be a kiosk.

But as they say nearby on Broadway, “the show must go on,” and while COVID-19 has abducted many of our cherished pastimes, the USGA refuses to capitulate. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men are doing their level best to put a few championships back together again.

The list of U.S. Open exemptions, which the association announced last week, does just that: accommodates the best pros and recognizes the most accomplished amateurs, at least those most readily identifiable. But what truly helps this unusual exercise pass the credibility test is the presence of the ol’ left-hander.

No attempt to age the man here. When he arrives at Winged Foot, Phil Mickelson will have spent three months more than 50 years on earth – minus his occasional trips to Mars. And, of course, one of those space odysseys took place in 2006, the last time Mickelson visited Mamaroneck.

It was one of the record six times that Mickelson has finished second in this shooting match – the most excruciating time – the time he came to the 72nd tee just one par and one hallelujah moment from a soul-cleansing U.S. Open victory. It was the time he hit driver … to infinity and beyond, before he provided his own color commentary: “I’m such an idiot.”

As Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” You have to hand it to Mickelson, though. No one has more U.S. Open “experience.”

And now he’s back, sick calves and all. Although Mickelson indicated that he would refuse a special exemption and try to qualify, chivalry won’t be necessary. The announced exemption category that embraces the top 70 in the Official World Golf Ranking as of March 15 puts him comfortably under the cutline.

So, life begins anew at 50, and Mickelson will get that first chance to make a second impression at Winged Foot. Naturally, he had just the right words to summarize the news: “You can't win if you don't play, so you've got to be in the tournament to have a chance to win,” Mickelson said last week.

Again, extremely difficult to argue with that sentiment.

As he demonstrated last week at the birdie-infested Travelers, at which he faded to T-24 after having held the 36-hole lead, Mickelson still has a chance. What’s more, golf fans deserve to watch him take it. After all, this will be the 30th playing since Hale Irwin’s improbable 1990 victory at Medinah. Tied for 20th as the final round began, a 45-year-old Irwin went nuts on the backside, drained a 45-foot putt on the 72nd green and won a 19-hole playoff. He became and remains the oldest champion in U.S. Open history.

Can Mickelson turn back that many pages, create that kind of thrill? Can we say for sure that he can’t?

Irwin’s historic U.S. Open also was Mickelson’s first. Mickelson finished T-29 at Medinah, the low amateur. He has played in 27 of the 29 since and finished no worse than T-16 in 11 of them. He has won 44 PGA Tour events, three of the four majors, and enjoys a place setting in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

He is the ultimate U.S. Open foil, the guy whom the championship keeps knocking down, the guy who screams, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” the guy whom COVID-battered New York loves. And over these many years, we are used to seeing it.

The U.S. Open vs. Phil Mickelson is one of golf’s most entertaining sequels and endearing themes. It brings a sense of normalcy to our socially distanced world and keeps us regular.

And it would be just like Mickelson, in these times, at his age, actually to go out and win it. Sam Snead won a PGA Tour event at the age of 59, made a U.S. Open cut at 61, tied for third at a PGA Championship at 62. Stranger things have happened.

Are you kidding? Take a look around. Stranger things are happening.

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