Brooklyn, Mass. ( Associated Press) — Phil Mickelson made his way down the first fairway and almost habitually flaunted a thumbs up, even though he wasn’t responding to the occasional encouraging word behind the ropes or in the grandstands. In that respect, Tuesday felt like a typical US Open.
This is his 31st appearance, and any degree of normalcy – for Mickelson and many other big names in golf – is hard to find.
LIV golf and Saudi riches get as much attention as the thick and firm greens. Greg Norman is often mentioned as Francis Ouimet.
Brooks Koepka had heard enough.
“I’m trying to focus on the US Open,” Koepka, the two-time US Open champion, said. “I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversation. I’m tired of all these things. You’re all throwing black clouds at the US Open. I think it sucks.”
Mickelson is at the center of Saudi-funded rival league running Norman, returning last week outside London to play the inaugural LIV event with 13 other players from their four-month hiatus, now slated for the US Open. In The Country Club.
He played with Jon Rahm and Kevin Na. Near the first tee, the applause was warm, though somewhat muted compared to other years, still with the strange shout, “It’s your year, Phil!” or “We love you, Phil!”
A fan recognized Rahm and yelled at him, a nice gesture for the defending champion.
Brookline is nothing like Torrey Pines, where last year Rahm became the first player in US Open history to birdie and win by one shot in the final two holes. The scenery is classic New England, not the California coast. However, the test sounds familiar.
“It’s a US Open. That’s all you need,” Rahm said. “You need to drive well, hit your iron well, chip well and cast well, and mental for four days. Must be healthy. You can’t hide, period. You’ll have a lot of holes where things are about to go wrong, but I have to go into it and accept some of the things that do happen.
“Obviously, as in every US Open, par is a good score.”
His biggest concern was finding a place in a practice packed with major champions, PGA Tour winners, amateurs and local qualifiers. Again, this is what the US Open brings.
Even so, outside noise is difficult to turn off.
Rory McIlroy said in February, when top players aligned themselves with the PGA Tour, that the Saudi venture was “dead in the water”. On Tuesday, he was asked about that remark.
“I thought we were at the US Open,” McIlroy said.
He was not as angry as Koepka, mainly because McIlroy has emerged as a strong voice against rival leagues. He is on the policy board of the PGA Tour and makes no apologies for being so outspoken “because in my opinion it is the right thing to do.”
“The PGA Tour was created by the people and Tour players who came before us, like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” he said. “He built something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players coming first. We and all the hard work he put in went in vain.”
At some point, McIlroy will remove his cap as spokesman and attempt to end eight years without a major victory. He hopes a win at last week’s Canadian Open will help him.
He has achieved more than a few runner-up finishes and top 10 majors in the last eight years compared to his first six years as a pro. But he has come into the 18th hole only once with a chance to win since his last major title at the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I think the start of my career was probably more feast or famine in the big companies,” McElroy said. “I would heat up and win or I would miss the cut to 10. There was a little more consistency going on. But, again, it doesn’t bring with it the glory that wins.”
McIlroy has friends who have signed up and cashed in on LIV Golf. He is in no hurry to judge. As far as Mickelson is concerned, McIlroy had nothing but respect for what he did in golf, at least inside the ropes.
“Who am I to sit here and teach Phil a lesson on how to do things? He’s had a great career. He’s his own man,” McIlroy said. “Am I disappointed that he has taken the path he has taken? I am. But I still respect him immensely.”
It was not unusual to see Rahm and Mickelson giving their history together. Mickelson took the Spaniard under his wing while Rahm was at Arizona State, where Mickelson’s brother was a golf coach.
Rahm has also made his position clear on the threat to the PGA Tour.
“To be honest, with what I’ve done, I can just retire and live a very happy life and never play golf again,” he said. “So I’ve never really played a 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 heritage, and that’s what it is on the PGA Tour right now.”
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