Phil Mickelson lumbered his way down the first fairway and flashed a thumbs-up almost by habit, even if he wasn’t responding to an occasional encouraging word from behind the ropes or in the grandstands. In that respect, Tuesday felt like a typical U.S. Open.
This is his 31st appearance, and any degree of normalcy — for Mickelson and so many other big names in golf — is hard to find.
LIV Golf and Saudi riches get as much attention as 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 U.S. Open, man,” Koepka, a two-time U.S. Open champion, said testily. “I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversations. I’m tired of all this stuff. Y’all are throwing a black cloud on the U.S. Open. I think that sucks.”
Mickelson is at the heart of the Saudi-funded rival league that Norman is running, returning from his four-month hiatus last week outside London to play the inaugural LIV event with 13 other players who are now at The Country Club for the U.S. Open.
He played with Jon Rahm and Kevin Na. Approaching the first tee, the applause was warm, though somewhat muted compared with other years, still with the odd shout, “This is your year, Phil!” or “We love you, Phil!”
One fan recognized Rahm and gave him a shout, a nice gesture for the defending champion.
Brookline is nothing like Torrey Pines, where last year Rahm became the first player in U.S. Open history to birdie the last two holes and win by one shot. The scenery is classic New England, not California coast. The test, however, looks familiar.
“It’s a U.S. Open. You need everything,” Rahm said. “You need to drive well, hit your irons well, chip well and putt well and be mentally sane for four days. You can’t hide, period. You are going to have a lot of holes where things are going to go wrong, but I just have to know going into it and accept certain things that happen.
“Obviously, as every U.S. Open, par is a good score.”
His biggest concern was finding space on a practice green packed with major champions, PGA Tour winners, amateur and local qualifiers. Again, this is what a U.S. Open brings.
Still, the outside noise is hard to turn off.
Rory McIlroy had said in February, when the top players aligned themselves with the PGA Tour, that the Saudi venture was “dead in the water.” He was asked Tuesday about that comment.
“I thought we were at the U.S. Open,” McIlroy said.
He wasn’t as miffed as Koepka, mainly because McIlroy has emerged as a strong voice against the rival league. He is on the PGA Tour’s policy board 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 tour players that came before us, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” he said. “They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they’ve put in just come out to be nothing.”
At some point, McIlroy will remove his cap as spokesman and try to end eight years without winning a major. He hopes he is helped by a victory last week at the Canadian Open.
He has had a few runner-up finishes and more top 10s at the majors in the last eight years than his first six years as a pro. But he has come to the 18th hole only 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 would get hot and win or I would miss the cut by 10. A little more consistency going on. But, again, that doesn’t bring with it the glory that the wins do.”
McIlroy has friends who have 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 has done in golf, at least inside the ropes.
“Who am I to sit up here and give Phil a lesson on how to do things? He has had a wonderful career. He is his own man,” McIlroy said. “Am I disappointed he has taken the route that he has taken? I am. But I still respect him tremendously.”
It was not unusual 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, too, has made his position clear on the threat to the PGA Tour.
“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again,” he said. “So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary 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.”