ERIN, Wis. — Barring a weather event that no one expects, the U.S. Open will have a look that no one has seen in nearly a quarter-century. For the first time since 1993, the Open is likely to begin without either Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
The chasm caused by their absence could represent the championship’s toughest hole.
“It kind of makes me feel like we’re maybe 10 years down the road,” said Jordan Spieth, a two-time major champion who is arguably the headliner at the tournament that begins Thursday at Erin Hills. “It’s a little weird. I didn’t think that would happen at this time. But Tiger coming back from injury and Phil putting family first, these are reasons that keep you away from golf.”
Spieth’s birth was still a month away in June 1993, when the U.S. Open was held at Baltusrol. Woods still was younger than Mickelson’s oldest daughter is now, and Mickelson had failed to make the Open through sectional qualifying. Jim “Bones” Mackay, his caddie, worked that week for Mike Standly and helped the journeyman make the Open cut for the only time in his career. He tied for 16th.
Mackay was on the grounds here Tuesday, Golf Channel reported, just in case something crazy happens and his longtime boss does manage to play. Mickelson’s daughter Amanda is graduating from high school in California Thursday morning and he plans to be there, listening to her speech. Mickelson has said that a four-hour rain delay would back things up enough to postpone his late-afternoon tee time to Friday morning, allowing him to enter. Forecasts are calling for the possibility of thunderstorms, but not a soaking of biblical proportions.
So the U.S. national championship probably will go on without the two figures that have dominated American golf for the past 20 years. If it happens, the double absence will carry wistful, somber freight: Woods is recovering from back surgery and his reputation is reeling from the sight of his dazed mug shot following a DUI arrest, Mickelson never has won the U.S. Open but has finished second six times.
“Tiger has been missing, but Philly hasn’t. It’s just a real shame that somebody didn’t catch this a little sooner,” said Paul Azinger, a Fox analyst who is friendly with both men. Referring to the graduation’s scheduling, he added, “You’ve got to think Phil has got every U.S. Open circled for the next 10 or 12 years and that the conflict of dates was something that was missed by his team. That’s a pity, really. If ever there were a great golf course for Phil Mickelson, this is it.”
Azinger said the extreme width of Erin Hills’ fairways would negate Mickelson’s weakness: errant drives. The result would be many short iron shots for a player Azinger called “one of the great iron players who ever lived.”
Mickelson and Woods always are fan favorites. Predicting who will be the people’s choice this week is as uncertain as figuring out who will win or what his score will be. “Well, this is golf for the next 10 years, maybe,” said Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and TV commentator.
When a reporter asked Spieth about the two-way absence, he said, “I hadn’t thought about it at all until you just said that. We’ve got to go out there and do what we do. You certainly hope that they’re both back, playing their best in the near future.”
Perhaps both will be back in the Open fold next year at Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson had possibly his best chance to win (leading on the 17th hole on Sunday in 2004) and Woods played in his first Open (withdrawing because of a hand injury while hitting out of the fescue in 1995).