U.S. Open 2015: Tour Confidential: Is This Phil Mickelson's Year?
SI Golf Group convened a panel of experts—senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, as well as special contributor John Garrity and a PGA Tour player who took part on the condition of anonymity—to tackle these and other questions
Is this the year Phil Mickelson finally lands his elusive Open?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Phil has never played an Open with this much room off the tee. This is probably his best chance. If he doesn’t do it this year, it’ll never happen.
Anonymous Pro: I had high hopes for Phil this year. He worked on his conditioning, got some clubhead speed back and has played better. His short game could really shine at Chambers Bay, but it all hinges on how he putts. His driver is his Achilles’ heel, just like Tiger.
John Garrity, special contributor, SI Golf Group (@jgarrity2): At least they finally have something in common.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Do I think Phil can finish top five? Absolutely. Do I think he can win? When you add the kind of pressure he’ll have to face, not really.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): I wrote off Phil after last year, but he showed me something in April by shooting 14 under at the Masters. I give him a chance because as Alan said, it’s a big ballpark. I wouldn’t bet him, though.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I’d love to see Phil complete the career Grand Slam. He’s been great for golf and he deserves it, but I don’t see it. He’ll be 45, and Opens are hard to win. They’re 72 holes of sheer grinding, and I don’t think that’s Phil’s specialty. Majors are a young man’s game.
GARRITY: One of us has to mention that Phil has been second in six U.S. Opens, and he was second in the latest PGA and Masters. If you’re a data-driven guy like I am, you have to look at the numbers. They lead to an obvious conclusion: Phil will finish in second place.
Is Rory McIlroy on the verge of becoming unstoppable?
BAMBERGER: No one is unstoppable, especially at a U.S. Open. You can make a triple on any hole, or you can have one bad nine that takes you out of it.
VAN SICKLE: That’s true, but Rory is like Tiger in that his best golf is better than anyone else’s best. If Rory plays his best, he wins.
BAMBERGER: I don’t agree. Martin Kaymer’s best and Jordan Spieth’s best and Dustin Johnson’s best are every bit as good as Rory’s best.
SHIPNUCK: The difference is, those other guys bring their best once a year. Rory brings his best five or six or seven times a year.
GARRITY: No player can stop Rory. You can’t play defense in golf because you’re not allowed to tackle or bodycheck on the PGA Tour. Rory isn’t a machine. He has spells where he loses his focus or doesn’t have his edge, and they come without warning. So I say he can be stopped.
ANONYMOUS PRO: What we’ve learned is, as Rory drives it, so goes his game. The weeks he drives it well, nobody can beat him. I hate to say it, but the only thing that can stop him is playing too much. He just played five weeks in a row, and when you’re in the spotlight and winning, that’s too much.
VAN SICKLE: That five weeks included traveling across the Atlantic too. Without the Concorde, that’s a long trip now no matter how you do it.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Not every course is going to suit Rory. Tiger picked his spots well. As he gets older, Rory will trim his schedule and do the same.
SHIPNUCK: Rory hasn’t proved he can win on a firm, fast major setup or in cold, nasty conditions. He may get both on the same day at Chambers.
VAN SICKLE: Rory won at Quail Hollow by a bunch; he’s already won majors by at least a touchdown.
BAMBERGER: Kaymer and Spieth have shown they can win majors by wide margins too.
VAN SICKLE: If you win more than one major by eight shots, as Rory has done, that means you’ve got a different gear than the other guys.
How many major titles will McIlroy have at career’s end?
SHIPNUCK: I’m going to say 15.
BAMBERGER: Wow! Alan, you didn’t tell us to sit down first.
SHIPNUCK: It should be obvious. Tiger has been Rory’s guiding light for a long time. Since Tiger looks like he’s going to be stuck at 14, Rory wants to pass Tiger just like Tiger wanted to pass Jack at 18.
ANONYMOUS PRO: The fact that Rory doesn’t do well on firm, fast courses rules out about two majors a year for him. I say he ties Tiger at 14. He’s got another 12 years of majors in which he’s super-competitive. He’s got time to win 10 more.
BAMBERGER: I’m bullish on Rory as well, but if he wins seven majors and the career Grand Slam, he will have had an unbelievable career.
SHIPNUCK: Michael, that could happen next April.
BAMBERGER: I’m simply saying seven majors would be a tremendous accomplishment. Tiger was one in a million; he was better than Rory in every single aspect, especially putting. Tiger won 10 in unbelievably quick fashion.
VAN SICKLE: Well, they better hurry up because he’s already got four. Rory has already suffered a slump and conquered complacency. He’s 26, and all those traps that inevitably snare top golfers are already behind him.
BAMBERGER: Golf is way more complicated than it used to be. They used to think your 30s were your prime, when you were married and settled. Those days are over. Now, you win majors in your 20s and you’re done.
VAN SICKLE: Who does Rory have to beat? Spieth is a great putter, but his ball striking doesn’t stack up.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I don’t know who it’s going to be, but Rory does have some limitations. His putting is great when he’s hot, but he’s not consistently as good a putter as Jack or Tiger. His game isn’t as adaptable as Jack’s or Tiger’s either.
SHIPNUCK: There are a handful of major venues, like St. Andrews and Chambers Bay, that favor Rory in a huge way. He’s learning to play Augusta National, and it’s hard to imagine him not winning multiple Masters. Rory’s best golf is in front of him.
VAN SICKLE: Rory will get to double figures. I’ll settle for 10. Sure, the Old Course may be perfect for Rory, but what if the wind howls at 35 mph every day? There is a luck factor in majors, like when Tiger got blown off Muirfield in the third round in 2002 when he looked sure to sweep all four majors.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Even if Rory wins only six more majors, that’s still unbelievable. With four wins, he’s already Hall of Fame material.
GARRITY: I say Rory will win 10 majors.
BAMBERGER: Why is that, John?
GARRITY: Because that’s as many as I can count without taking my shoes off.
What’s your craziest memory from the U.S. Open?
VAN SICKLE: Never mind T.C. Chen’s double chip in 1985 at Oakland Hills. Earlier on that hole, he shanked a mid-iron from the fairway. I’d never seen a Tour player do that. Chen cracked, and I knew then that he wasn’t going to win and that my local guy, Andy North, just might. It was a goose-bump moment.
SHIPNUCK: That’s the first time in history Andy North gave anyone goose bumps.
BAMBERGER: When the Open is at Bethpage, you can’t get anywhere near the course in a four-wheeled vehicle. I remember watching with awe as Donald Trump, driving a Bentley, pulled right up and parked in front of the clubhouse as if he was the club president. I thought, this guy must know people.
GARRITY: Mickelson should have won the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills, and he would have if Retief Goosen (above) hadn’t kept rolling in putts on a day when the USGA lost the greens. The course was virtually unplayable; the average score was five strokes higher than the previous three rounds. The greens were like ceramic tile, and yet Goosen went around in 24 putts. That was crazy.
SHIPNUCK: After Phil gave away the Open at Winged Foot in 2006, he sat at his locker with his head in his hands. It was 20 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Everyone was whispering, like at a funeral. Amy said, “I think he’s in clinical shock; I’ve never seen him like this.” When he finally stood up, he seemed so empty. To see how much the Open meant to Phil in that moment was amazing.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I played at Shinnecock in ’04, and a guy in my group hit his putt up around the hole at number 7 and watched his ball roll back to his feet and keep going, off the green and into a bunker. Another debacle was at Bethpage Black in ’02. I played with a guy who couldn’t reach the fairway at number 10—it was almost 270 yards to clear the heather. Some player yelled at Tom Meeks, who set up the course that week, and Meeks answered, “Where in the rule book does it say you have to be able to reach the fairway to play the hole?” Let me tell you, that did not go over well.
Will Chambers Bay be a great Open venue or a “complete farce,” as Ian Poulter said?
VAN SICKLE: I’ll repeat what I wrote about Whistling Straits before its first major. Everyone should’ve played this course sooner because Chambers Bay is going to look fantastic on TV. It’s about to become a must-play destination. Which means you’ll never get a tee time and the price is going to triple.
GARRITY: Even if the Open is a farce, it’ll be exciting. This course is completely different. We have not had a U.S. Open course like this. If you remember the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, you had guys playing 60-yard ground hooks. This is not target golf. Guys have to figure out what happens to the ball after it hits the ground. It’s going to be unpredictable and require a lot of creativity.
BAMBERGER: If Ian Poulter is dissing it, it bodes well for the course.
SHIPNUCK: Agreed. It’ll be such a fascinating Open because it could be a totally different course every day. They have ribbons of tees, so they can change the yardage on each hole by 60, 80 or 100 yards. Throw in interesting pin placements and ever-changing weather, and it’ll be more like chess than golf. Some players are going to feel their brains leaking out their ears.
ANONYMOUS PRO: If it’s a farce, it’ll be on [the USGA’s] Mike Davis. With the wrong conditions and the wrong setup, this could be a disaster. If you get the ball in the wrong place, the course can make you look stupid. Local knowledge will be big. We’ll see if anybody can figure out this puzzle.
VAN SICKLE: The greens look like Rube Goldberg designs. Some have some extreme slopes, which means approach shots are going to react in ways the player won’t expect, or appreciate.
SHIPNUCK: This will be a referendum on Mike Davis and whether he has the Spaldings to make this course play as great as it could or whether he plays it safe to keep everyone happy.
BAMBERGER: Merion didn’t need all the things the USGA did to it. They got one over par as the winning score, but they should’ve just played the course as it was. Chambers Bay has so much going for it, the USGA shouldn’t have to do anything extreme or need one man’s imprint to be so bold.
SHIPNUCK: I walked the course recently with its designer, Bob Jones, and he pointed out a few controversial pin placements and said he’ll be curious to see if Davis uses them. There was a twinkle in his eye. So some things could go awry.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I’ll just say this about Chambers Bay—it’s the most interesting course of its kind.
And the winner is . . .
BAMBERGER: It’s obvious. Rory McIlroy.
VAN SICKLE: You said he’ll finish with seven majors, so after he wins this, you’re saying he’s going to get only two more in his career?
BAMBERGER: You asked who was going to win this Open. If I had to bet, I’d bet Rory. But yes, I am a little conflicted.
GARRITY: I’ll go with Dustin Johnson, for the ability of a long hitter to aim at big fairways and cut off huge amounts on doglegs. That reminds me of John Daly at Crooked Stick in the PGA. A handful of guys can do the same thing—Bubba Watson, Rory and a few others. Plus, Chambers Bay is a demanding walk, and Dustin is in as good a shape as anyone on Tour.
SHIPNUCK: Chambers Bay will be an Open unlike any other. So I’m picking a guy we all agree would probably never win a U.S. Open because he’s so fragile mentally—Bubba Watson. The way he has navigated the greens at Augusta is impressive. He could separate himself from the field, or he could shoot 85–85. But I think something about Chambers Bay is going to work for him.
VAN SICKLE: This could turn into the Short Game Open, and the best short game on Tour belongs to Jordan Spieth. Also, no one knows Chambers Bay better than Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller. He caddied there, got married there and lives almost next door. That’s the local knowledge Mike Davis says you must have to win there.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Spieth is a good pick. I agree the short game will be ridiculously important. I don’t think Davis can play the course longer than 7,400 yards, because if conditions change in mid-day, there may be too many forced carries. Angles to the greens are more important than length. You’ll have to manage your way around, not just bomb it. I’ll take Jim Furyk in a thinking-man’s Open anytime.