The line will always exist near Phil Mickelson. On one side will stand those golf fans who adore him as much for his affable behavior as those large charitable donations. On the other will stand those convinced his act contains a sizable amount of phoniness, that he tends to create more drama than a local theater company.
Such a disparity of emotion lent itself to this question over the first two rounds of the U.S. Open: In missing the cut for the first time in his last 31 majors, did Mickelson come off as a more sympathetic figure or an irritating whiner?
It’s sort of like debating copyright issues. No simple answer exists.
Mickelson shot a two-day total of 11-over-par 151 but managed to make himself a major story at Oakmont Country Club. The left wrist he sprained while practicing out of the rough here over two weeks ago led to countless questions about how taxing the course has played, which he had no trouble responding to.
“It’s disappointing to dream as a kid about winning the U.S. Open and spend all the time getting ready for it and have the course set up the injury, you know?” Mickelson said. “The first practice round on Monday, (trainer) Jim Weathers had six other appointments. People hurting their ribs, their back, their wrists. It’s dangerous. It really is. You’ve got 5- or 6-inch rough and can only get a wedge in there. What good is it to practice? … I’m going to go watch the carnage on TV.”
That was his assessment Friday after shooting 77. A day prior, following a 74, it was this: “This (course) is the USGA’s wet dream.”
You didn’t need your best zoom lens to observe a thick strand of tension between Mickelson and the sanctioning body that runs this championship, most if not all of it permeating from him. He intensely desires this title, has finished second four times and surely feels the sting of his infamous meltdown at Winged Foot last year. When you add in the injury before this Open, you’re talking about a lot of emotion brewing inside one golfer.
But he also prepared for this tournament out of rough cut far higher than it would play this week. If he knew that, he has himself to blame for the sprained wrist. If he didn’t, he should have. To suggest otherwise — or even come close to saying the USGA is responsible for his injury — is absurd.
“I have no comment on that,” USGA vice president Jim Hyler said. “It’s a hard golf course. We’ve said that all along. It’s hard but fair. It’s our national championship. We want it to be a rigorous test. We listen to what (Mickelson) says, but it has no impact on how we set up the course.”
Here’s the thing: You can argue Mickelson was just saying what countless other players wanted to but didn’t in the same colorful manner. Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk also spoke to the course’s extreme toughness Friday, only in more formal ways.
It’s a wicked track made harder as the weather becomes drier, a course that saw the world’s top four players — Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Adam Scott — shoot a combined 28 over on Friday. But it can be momentarily solved, as Paul Casey proved with a second-round 66. It’s not completely impossible to shoot low, just sort of.
“I don’t concern myself whether the USGA is playing fair or not,” Furyk said. “I just go play it.”
Perhaps such an approach would have aided Mickelson. The drama just became too overwhelming with him this week, some of it his doing and some of it not. He would list the extensive amount of treatment being given the wrist, and you wondered if he instead had broken a leg.
Never has a simple support brace been shown so much on national television. His claim that the rough for Monday’s practice rounds was dangerous to the players’ health elicited more than a few smirks.
In the end, the only thing he did really well here was remind everyone about that line that separates those who love him and those who don’t, those who will have watched this week and labeled him either a sympathetic figure or an irritating whiner.
Either way, his play spoke for itself.
“I did not knock out Mickelson,” said second-round leader Angel Cabrera, whose birdie on the last hole brought him to par and guaranteed Mickelson’s early trip home. “Mickelson knocked himself out. He shot 11 over par.”
For this, there is no line of separation.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS