Masters champion overshadowed in threesome
There are 156 golfers here in San Francisco to compete in the U.S. Open, and 155 of them are ineligible to become the first modern Grand Slam winner. The exception is Masters champion Bubba Watson.
Watson is ranked No. 5 in the world. Through his first 10 starts this season, the 33-year-old from Bombay, Fla. didn’t finish out of the Top 20. Watson might not be pro golf’s most accurate driver, but he’s got the strength to blast shots out of the rough and the creativity to shape them according to the contour of the greens.
Watson could win this thing. Should he manage just to stay in the hunt for a couple of rounds, his quest to go two-for-two in the 2012 majors figures be a prominent story line at The Olympic Club.
And yet on Thursday, alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the world’s fifth-ranked player will be only the third most-recognized member of the group teeing off at 7:33 a.m.
“I’m guessing,” Watson said Tuesday, “we’re going to have big crowds.”
A “big” crowd is one way to describe the gallery expected to follow Tiger, Lefty and Bubba. Count on a mob scene longer than the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving, and more dense than Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The pairing of Woods and Mickelson, with Watson serving as the third big wheel, was not the result of serendipity. The USGA is responsible for the groupings in the first and second rounds of the U.S. Open, and the USGA does not do serendipity.
To the contrary, the USGA so emphasizes structure and order that the tournament scheduled for University Place’s Chambers Bay, in 2015, now looms in the Open rotation in front of Oakmont (2016), Erin Hills (2017), Shinnecock Hills (2018) and Pebble Beach (2019).
An organization making plans for a golf event in 2019 is an organization that leaves no detail to chance. The Thursday morning grouping of Koreans K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang and K.T. Kim, for instance, is no coincidence. Neither is the Thursday afternoon grouping of Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland), Luke Donald (England) and Lee Westwood (England), which will precede an international trio of former major winners to the first tee: Ernie Els (South Africa), Geoff Ogilvy (Australia) and Angel Cabrera (Argentina).
On the other hand, while I’ve got no idea why Robert Karlsson (Sweden), Bob Estes (Austin, Texas) and Robert Rock (England) were assigned to play the first two rounds together, I’ve got no doubt the USGA considered the grouping with the same logic it gave to putting Watson with Woods and Mickelson. Tiger and Lefty also were paired together for rounds one and two of the 2008 U.S. Open, won by Woods. Mickelson finished tied for 18th.
How does Mickelson feel about the confrontation?
“Fabulous,” he said, “and I’ll tell you why. First of all, I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it’s time to tee off on Thursday, I’ll be ready to play. One of the issues I’ve had this year is that I’ve been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won’t be this week.
“And secondly, the one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf
is Tiger. Sometimes we’ll get a huge advantage in tee times, based on weather conditions or whatever. If we’re on the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage.”
Despite Mickelson’s insistence that he finds the assignment “fabulous,” there won’t be much in the way of banter between the longtime rivals.
“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” Woods said. “This is a major championship; we’ve got work to do. Any extra motivation? No. I’m just trying to get out there and position myself for Sunday.
“It’s such a test playing in this championship. There is no shot where you can relax. Sometimes – say you’re playing St. Andrews – you can go ahead and wail away, no big deal. But here, there’s such a premium on positioning the golf ball. This is the tournament when I think guys are the least conversant.”
As for Watson? While he won’t be in awe – he’s too accomplished to be in awe of anybody on a golf course – he isn’t pretending the first 36 holes at Olympic will be business as usual.
“Obviously, you step up your game,” he said. “You watch how they handle their situation. You wonder how they handle a bad lie. You learn from two legends of the game. These are the people I grew up watching in high school, and now I’m getting to play with them. I didn’t get to see all the older guys, but these are two legends of the game.”
Even McIlroy, winner of the 2011 U.S. Open – he’s attempting to become the first back-to-back Open champ since Curtis Strange in 1988 and ’89 – conceded the star power on the opposite side of his Thursday afternoon draw.
“Having Tiger and Phil and Bubba in the same group is going to be huge,” he said. “If I was a golf fan I’d want to watch that group because I’m sure you’ll see some fireworks.”
Fireworks would be fitting for a mob scene resembling New Year’s Eve at Times Square.