Next stop, Shinnecock. Next up, Phil Mickelson.
With the intensely anticipated Masters having come to a rousing end, the anticipation begins for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, a club that can hold its own with Augusta National.
The impeccably manicured course on which Patrick Reed won Sunday is vastly different from the windswept natural layout in Southampton that will host the next major in 10 weeks. But they do have their common ground. Both are private and very exclusive. Raymond Floyd has won a major on each (enjoying Shinnecock so much in 1986 that he became a member and bought a house nearby). Most notably, in Golf Digest’s annual ranking of America’s greatest courses, Augusta and Shinnecock often have both finished among the top three, along with Pine Valley in New Jersey.
“I’ve heard they’ve widened the fairways, then tightened the fairways. I’ll let it kind of settle in and I’ll go a few weeks beforehand. I have pretty extensive notes from years past,” said Mickelson, who will turn 48 the week of the Open and will have the chance to do what Rory McIlroy could not do Sunday: complete the career Grand Slam.
It is one of the great achievements in the sport, sort of golf’s Mount Rushmore. Only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods have done it. McIlroy would have joined that group had he won the Masters, and was within one shot of Reed’s lead as the pair played together in the final group. But he faltered badly, going from 12 under to 9 under in the space of seven holes.
“Probably some of my best golf I’ve played here,” McIlroy said. “Just wasn’t meant to be. I’ve played in two final groups in the last seven years, I’ve had five top-10s, I play this golf course well. I just haven’t played it well enough at the right time.”
Trying to join such select company is a heavy weight to carry, otherwise more golfers would have done it.
“I think when you’re playing in the final group of a major there’s always going to be pressure,” McIlroy said. “But after I parred the first, that sort of settled me down. So it wasn’t as if nerves got to me. I just didn’t have it.”
Mickelson said of McIlroy, 28, and Jordan Spieth, 24, who could join the club with a win in the PGA Championship: “They will do it, if not this year, they’ve got a lot of time. They won their majors early in their careers. I didn’t start until I was 33, and they’re not even close to that. They’ll get it done, but I need to get it done soon.”
He nearly got it done at Shinnecock in 2004, leading late in the final round, but finished second. Mickelson tied for fourth there in 1995. So he is as hopeful as a 47-year-old can be about defeating all the young stars. There is a “but,” though. Like everyone else, he remembers the scorched earth and clouds of dust at Shinnecock 14 years ago.
“You know that’s going to be a very interesting week,” he said, “because historically the USGA hasn’t done the best at setting that thing up. I hope that they let the superintendent there do his thing and not interfere, because he knows what he’s doing.”
The USGA has assured superintendent Jon Jennings, and everyone else, that Shinnecock Hills will be allowed to show its world-class personality this time. That is good news because in some ways, Shinnecock has it over Augusta. While the latter did not allow women members until 2012, the former had women members from the start, in 1891. The first four U.S. Women’s Amateur champions came from Shinnecock Hills.
So it will be a worthy stage as it inherits the dramas from an eventful week here. The continuing comeback of Tiger Woods, who played his first U.S. Open in 1995, at Shinnecock (he withdrew after injuring his wrist trying to hit from the fescue). The excellence of Spieth, who almost pulled off a miracle with a final-round 64. McIlroy’s possible rebound from another disappointment. Reed’s chance to become the first ever to win the single-season Grand Slam. A slew of players aiming to be the next to become a first-time major winner.
The whole show is headed to the East End. Let the anticipation begin.