Normally, the role of a sports columnist is to be present at events, to relay firsthand impressions of what occurred and, to the extent possible, to interview the participants — players, coaches, administrators — about what happened. But there are times, especially on the cusp of summer, when a weekend rolls around and you get to watch sports in the way most of America watches it: on television.
That was the case with the third round of our national championship of golf, the U.S. Open, on Saturday. As the day progressed, though, the feeling was that you were watching less of a tournament and more of a mildly sadistic horror film. If that was what I wanted on a Saturday afternoon, I’d have rented “Get Out” and trundled over the multiplex and bought a ticket for “Hereditary,” something not for the faint-hearted. But I would not expect to see Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas in the starring role and I certainly wouldn’t have expected Daniel Berger and Tony Finau — fine young golfers but hardly the names you look for atop a marquee — come from 11 shots off the pace and into the final group of the final day.
That’s what happened, though. The golfers who challenged the Shinnecock Hills course in the morning were tested, but not tortured. But by the afternoon, when the wind coming off Long Island Sound turned the greens into something like a parquet basketball floor with pin placements by the Marquis de Sade, that’s what happened. The best players in the world were reduced to trying to survive the increasing carnage and hope that their caddy didn’t pull out a chainsaw on the walk to the 18th green.
Everyone appreciates the USGA’s desire to keep someone from shooting 20-under par in the Open. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to see the world’s best players (the ones that survived the cut, anyway) without a fair chance at a decent score.
Alabama head men’s golf coach Jay Seawell went on social media and shared a similar sentiment on Saturday.
“Unfortunately we are not talking or showcasing golf,” Seawell said on Twitter during the round. “We are talking about grass and an organization. Usually after a major round, (we are) rushing to the range (but) not tonight. No enthusiasm after this day. #growthegame.”
And then, to top it off, there was Phil Mickelson.
Lefty, as he is called, is one of the great players of this generation and has been friendly in press conference settings over the years. No one is calling for his head but it’s fair to point out a mistake, and he made two. First, whether in anger or frustration, he missed a putt on the 13th hole that was destined to roll off the green and prolong his agony (and inflate his score).
So he chased the ball down, hit it while it was rolling and incurred a two-shot penalty, finishing with a score of 10 on the par-4. He then compounded the error, when instead of saying that he was frustrated and shouldn’t have acted like a 6-year-old on a putt-putt course, he hinted that it was strategy, trading the two shots for what might have been worse from off the green.
Without pretending to be an expert on the rules of golf, I do recognize the difference in strategy and dignity. Mickelson might have been able to declare his lie unplayable, take a one-stroke penalty and played from his original spot. But even if he did stay within the rules, the action and the answer were disappointing. In all sports, things don’t go your way sometimes. Better to take a 12 or 13 than “save” a 10 in that situation, and keep your dignity — and that of your sport — intact.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.