Phil Mickelson weaved his way down the first fairway and gave a thumbs up almost out of habit, though he wouldn’t respond to the occasional word of encouragement from behind the ropes or in the stands. In that regard, Tuesday felt like a typical US Open.
It’s his 31st appearance, and any degree of normalcy – for Mickelson and so many other big names in golf – is hard to come by.
LIV Golf and the riches of Saudi Arabia attract as much attention as the thick, rough and firm greens. Greg Norman is mentioned about as often as Francis Ouimet.
Brooks Koepka had heard enough.
“I’m trying to focus on the US Open, man,” the two-time US Open champion Koepka said moodily. “I legitimately don’t understand. I’m tired of the conversations. I am fed up with all that. You all cast a dark cloud over the US Open. I think that sucks.
Mickelson is at the heart of the rival Saudi-funded league that Norman leads, returning from his four-month break last week outside London to play the first LIV event with 13 other players who are now at the Country Club for the US Open.
He played with Jon Rahm and Kevin Na. As the first tee approached, the applause was warm, if a little muffled compared to other years, always with the eerie shout: “It’s your year, Phil!” or “We love you, Phil!”
A fan recognized Rahm and shouted at him, a nice gesture for the defending champion.
Brookline is nothing like Torrey Pines, where last year Rahm became the first player in US Open history to birdie the last two holes and win outright. The scenery is classic New England, not coastal California. The test, however, looks familiar.
“It’s a US Open. You need everything,” Rahm said. “You have to drive well, hit your irons well, chip and putt well and be sane for four days. You can’t hide, period. You’re going to have a lot of holes where things go wrong, but I just have to know how to step into it and accept certain things that happen.
“Obviously, like every US Open, par is a good score.”
His biggest concern was finding space on a practice green filled with top champions, PGA Tour winners, amateur and local qualifiers. Again, that’s what a US Open brings.
Yet outside noise is difficult to silence.
Rory McIlroy had said in February, when the best players lined up on the PGA Tour, that the Saudi company was “dead in the water”. He was questioned on Tuesday about the comment.
“I thought we were at the US Open,” McIlroy said.
He wasn’t as upset as Koepka, mainly because McIlroy became a strong voice against the rival league. He’s on the PGA Tour board of directors and makes no apologies for being so outspoken “because in my opinion it’s the right thing to do.”
“The PGA Tour was created by people and players on the tour who came before us, like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” he said. “They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players who came before us and all the hard work they put in came to nothing.
At some point, McIlroy will take off his spokesman cap and try to end eight years without winning a major. He hopes to be helped by a victory last week at the Canadian Open.
He’s had a few second-place finishes and more top 10s at the majors in the past eight years than his first six years as a professional. But he’s only come to the 18th hole once with a chance to win since his last major title in the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I think the start of my career was probably more feast or famine in the majors,” McIlroy said. “I was getting hot and winning or missing the 10 cut. A little more consistency going on. But, again, it doesn’t bring the glory that wins do.
McIlroy has friends who signed up and cashed in on LIV Golf. He is not quick to judge. As for Mickelson, McIlroy had nothing but respect for what he did in golf, at least on the ropes.
“Who am I to sit here and teach Phil a lesson in how to do things?” He had a wonderful career. He’s his own man,” McIlroy said. “Am I disappointed that he took the road he took? I am. But I still respect him immensely.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Rahm and Mickelson together given their history. Mickelson took the Spaniard under his wing while Rahm was at Arizona State, where Mickelson’s brother was the golf coach.
Rahm also made his position clear on the threat to the PGA Tour.
“Truth be told, I could retire now with what I’ve earned and live a very happy life and not play golf anymore,” he said. “So I’ve never really played golf for financial reasons. I play for the love of the game and I want to play against the best in the world.
“I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”
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