SAN FRANCISCO — There is something quintessentially American about putting Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods into one mega-watt super-group, scheduled to tee off at 7:33 a.m. (PDT) in the first round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club on Thursday. Hey, let’s take a bunch of cool stuff, throw it all together, and see what happens!
If Mickelson-Watson-Woods were a food, they would be chocolate-covered bacon. If they were a movie, they would be The Avengers, or Cowboys & Aliens. Fans at home love the idea, as does the USGA, which is angling for more than TV ratings. ESPN’s coverage doesn’t start until 9 a.m., making usopen.com the only place to go (besides Olympic) to watch video of the power trio for the first 90 minutes. Mickelson may love it more than anybody.
“Fabulous,” he said in his press conference Tuesday afternoon. “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 I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won't be this week.”
In the 30 times Mickelson and Woods have played together on the PGA Tour, Mickelson has shot the lower score 13 times, including the last time they went head-to-head, when Mickelson beat Woods 64-75 and won the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. Woods, though, has bettered Mickelson 13 times, including a 68-75 thumping in round two of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, which Woods went on to win. They’ve tied four times.
“Second is,” Mickelson continued, “the one player I'm most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger. And the fact that we are on the same wavelength, I'm always in favor of. Sometimes we'll get a huge advantage in tee times, based on weather conditions or whatnot, if we're in the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage.”
Neither Watson nor Woods was quite so sanguine.
“We’re all going to try to be hitting these little fairways and these little greens, and somehow two-putt,” said Watson, who used to be one of Woods’s favorite practice-round partners before the two drifted apart in recent years. “But it will be fun, though,” Watson added. “It’s two legends.”
“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” Woods said of the eagerly awaited next installment of his long rivalry with Mickelson, which began in the final round of the 1997 PGA Championship, when both men shot 75.
The U.S. Open is a grind. We can only assume that’s what Woods meant when he added, “This is the tournament that I think the guys least conversate.”
Yes, he said “conversate.” The 7:33 a.m. threesome has us tongue-tied with anticipation. As Boo Weekley, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team’s maestro of the malapropism might say, we’re all wondering how the three will “compatibate.”
More than likely none of them will win. Olympic is called the “Graveyard of Champions,” a nod to the club’s history of upsets. It’s where Lee Janzen beat Payne Stewart (’98), Scott Simpson edged Tom Watson (’87), Billy Casper beat Arnold Palmer (’66), and Jack Fleck outshined Ben Hogan (’55).
But let’s not get bogged down in the details. The power trio at Olympic is such a fascinating mix of talents, personalities and, yes, egos, it can’t help but be interesting. Watson, the most high-strung player in golf, has come back to earth after winning the Masters in April and taking some time off, having missed the cut at the Memorial. “I got mad enough,” he said, “I started practicing.”
Asked how he likes Olympic, Watson didn’t mince words.
“As of right now, I don’t like it,” he said. “There’s an 80 lurking.”
Mickelson, five times a U.S. Open runner-up, withdrew in his last start, at the Memorial. Playing with Watson and Rickie Fowler, he carded an opening 79 and — citing exhaustion — opted out of the second round. Watson said the WD was due to all the picture-taking among the star-struck, cell phone-carrying fans, and Mickelson was later reported to have texted PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem mid-round to complain about the phones.
Cell phones won’t be an issue this week, because unlike the Tour, the USGA prohibits fans from bringing them onto the course. But is there something about Watson that bugs Mickelson? Is the original creative, long-hitting lefty bothered by the newer version? Although he repeatedly said how much he likes playing with Woods, Mickelson didn’t mention Watson at all Tuesday.
Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors for four years, won in his last start, at the Memorial, but must prove he can master his new Sean Foley swing for more than a week at a time; in penal, major-championship conditions; and while playing in the same group as Mickelson, who has beaten Woods in five of their last seven meetings.
Woods says he’s compressing the ball better on his high-trajectory shots, making him a different player than the guy who tied for 40th at the Masters two weeks after winning at Bay Hill earlier this season. We’ll see.
Add the storylines together, throw in the multiplier of the three men playing in the same group, with major stakes, and you have must-see TV. (For fans on site who had hoped to see any of these guys, well, better luck next time.)
This threesome is the USGA’s answer to the old John Updike quote, “Sex is like money; only too much is enough.” And yet part of what’s so intriguing is that these three could easily and spectacularly blow up.
As captain of the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team, Hal Sutton made Mickelson and Woods partners for opening-day alternate-shot and best-ball matches, but he watched forlornly as America’s (then) best players lost ugly both times.
Mickelson and Woods played in the same threesome with Adam Scott at the ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where the excitement boiled over at cocktail hour during Friday’s second round. Responding to persistent heckling of his boss, Scott, caddie Tony Navarro ducked under the gallery rope to confront two drunken fans, a father and son. Police intervened and arrested the fans, who were escorted off the course in handcuffs and screaming, but not before injuring two female officers.
What madness can we expect this week? Chocolate-covered bacon, The Avengers and Mickelson-Watson-Woods. As Sutton might say, “Somebody had to try it,” because this is America, where anything worth doing is worth overdoing.