SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The crop of young Americans tearing their way through the golf world is as impressive as it is deep, from multiple major winner Jordan Spieth to his newest major-champ club members, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed.
They are three twentysomething golfers who can look up the rankings to see another countryman at World No. 1 in Dustin Johnson or down to find another major winner in defending US Open champion Brooks Koepka, or glance at almost any recent major leaderboard and find the one still in search of his first big title in Rickie Fowler.
They can look around at each other and remember waging youth tournament battles when nobody knew or much cared who they were, or laugh about various college contests that cast them as foes in more than just an individual way. They are the next generation of American golf, here to play and here to stay.
But when they look at the field for the US Open that begins Thursday morning at Shinnecock Hills, when they combine all those different vantage points from which they’ve viewed this game, there are two American names that emerge from the rolls as if struck in all caps and typed in bold — the two, as Spieth put it Tuesday, “we grew up idolizing,” the two that represent everything they’ve wanted to be, that have seemingly always been there.
Until they weren’t.
Tiger and Phil.
No introduction needed. No last names either.
A year ago, the US Open was played without them, Tiger Woods still wondering whether his health would ever allow him to compete again, Phil Mickelson choosing to attend his daughter’s high school graduation instead of playing at Erin Hills.
But here they come again, two old warhorses back for another run, each so motivated to win this title. Tiger to reclaim the golfer he once was, Phil to unearth the one he can still be. Tiger to win the trophy he claimed 10 years ago for his last major win, Phil to win the only one missing from his Grand Slam case. Tiger to add that elusive championship coda to one of the greatest golf résumés of all time, Phil to complete a career legacy so agonizingly out of reach.
The US Open trophy (it goes by no other name) is coveted by every American golfer, for what it represents as a national championship, for what it reflects in tenacity, patience, and skill, for what it bestows in prestige. But a win for one of these two, for these longtime rivals-turned-friends “on the back end” (Tiger’s words, not mine) of their careers? Hard to decide which one a win would mean more to, Phil, playing in his 27th overall, or Tiger, in his 20th.
“Good question. Boy it is a good question. How do you measure that?” said two-time US Open champ and current Fox television analyst Curtis Strange, all but scratching his chin as he pondered the question moments before Woods made his way to an adjacent interview room Tuesday.
“A comeback like that would be really, really special. Because comebacks are hard. And then for Phil to do it at 47, complete the Slam, how do you measure the difference?
“I go back to your question because I love it. Which does it mean more to? Gosh. You can’t measure that.”
Give Spieth credit for trying. The young American from Texas seems the most likely heir to the Woods/Mickelson throne, with three majors already at age 25 putting him alongside Tiger for early dominance, while a soft, engaging personality ranks him up there near Mickelson for popularity.
“I would probably consider Phil’s more impressive, because that’s a significant career accomplishment, to win all four majors,” Spieth said. “I don’t know how many guys have done it.”
For the record, it’s five. Including Woods, who has three US Opens among his 14 majors, the last of which came in that unforgettable Torrey Pines Monday playoff over Rocco Mediate 10 years ago.
“If Tiger wins the US Open, then all he’s going to be asked about is, is he going to get to [Jack Nicklaus’s record of] 18?” Spieth said. “I think it makes a bigger difference for Phil than Tiger. I mean, Tiger’s got 14, and he’s won, what, three US Opens? Is that right? So I think there’s a different meaning to those two.”
Mickelson has been so close to this title it’s difficult for him even to talk about, his record six runner-up finishes defined not only by their frequency but by their degrees of heartbreak. From an unthinkable double-bogey collapse on the final hole in 2006 at Winged Foot to the double-bogey on the 71st hole here at Shinnecock in 2004, Mickelson has made a cottage industry of finishing second. It has left him a sage of sorts on what not to do.
“I love the challenge,” he said. “I mean, I really love the challenge, and I love that I have another opportunity to try and complete the career Grand Slam. My goal, though, is not to try to win on Thursday. My goal is to stay in it Thursday, stay in it Friday, and have an opportunity for the weekend.
“The last thing I’m thinking about right now is trying to win. I’m trying to get myself in position for the weekend, because when you try to go out and win a US Open, you will lose it quick.”
That Mickelson is back in the legitimate contender conversation is a credit not just to career consistency, but to recent results, to a stellar short game, to some room off the tees on this altered course, and to an affinity for a place he has played well at previously.
That’s one thing about Mickelson — he has always been here. With Woods, the decline felt so fast, so sudden, so inglorious for its personal foibles and drug-induced arrest, so crippling for its injury attacks on his back and his knees, it had us all wondering whether he would ever return. He was the best many of us ever saw in any sport, so singularly dominant he changed the game forever, forcing fans to stand up and pay attention, forcing fellow golfers to catch up or go away.
Yet only a year ago, stuck in front of a television watching the tournament from afar, he might have been the biggest skeptic of all that he would be standing here now, back in the game, vying for titles.
“No, no, no. I had no, really no expectation to have the thought that I could actually be here again,” Woods said. “I was just given the OK to start walking again, start moving around, and this was, what, June? So I hadn’t been cleared to start lifting yet.
“And so it was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf. Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again? That’s something that I had missed for a few years, and that was the main goal of it.
“To go from there to where I’m at now, I had no expectation of getting this far. A lot of this is pure bonus because of where I was. To be able to have this opportunity to play USGA events, to play against these guys, best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.”
We don’t either. Not with him. Not with Phil. The rivals-turned-friends-turned-rivals again, at least with this most coveted trophy at stake. Welcome back.