You may have heard that Tiger Woods shot a 61 on Friday at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, setting a course record and tying his best professional round ever. He went on to win the tournament by seven strokes over Henrik Stenson and Keegan Bradley, and will be the odds-on favorite to end his major drought with a victory at this week's PGA Championship. The Bridgestone win marked the latest success in an excellent year; by almost every measure, he's been the world's best golfer in 2013.
And yet throughout the sports media landscape, one question persists: Is he back?
This morning I was lucky enough to make a guest appearance on the fake podcast Conversations With an Idiot. We debated the hot-button issue, and the transcript is below. Please enjoy.
Every now and then, we will attempt to write the worst sports column on earth. Today: Let's talk about Phil Mickelson and what comes next.
GULLANE, Scotland — Phil Mickelson delivered a round for the ages on Sunday. You want clutch? How 'bout a bone-chilling 66 to rally back and win the British Open. You want highlights? Phil birdied four of the final six holes on Sunday. Pick one.
"The great players just seem to be able to pull it off," Paul Azinger said Sunday. "Think of the shots Phil Mickelson's hit coming down the stretch. He is a true champion."
That's right, a true champion. Phil's impressed me. He's got nothing left to prove to any of us.
But as I watched the magic unfold on Sunday, I kept coming back to a nagging question.
Phil Mickelson's stunning come-from-behind victory on Sunday in the Open Championship was as unlikely as it was impressive. Picking between crowning moments in Mickelson's lofty career was already difficult enough, but that final-round 66 — highlighted by that incredible run of four birdies over the final six holes — might qualify as the pinnacle of Lefty's run. For such an aggressive player to conquer a links course is one thing, but Muirfield? Just staggering.
Big words are getting thrown around with regard to this victory, too. "Best ever" is showing up an awful lot in stories about Mickelson's win. Best final round at a major ever? Best Mickelson final round ever? Best Mickelson performance ever? All are questions that would be really interesting to explore. If only there was a way to compare tournament performances across different courses and eras
Oh, right! There's the Z-score method, which I first wrote about after Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open victory in June 2011. Traditional scoring only measures performance versus par and awards a winner by virtue of having the best score, but since there are no adjustments for the quality of the course or the competition, finishing 15-under at one course doesn't translate into anything at a more difficult course.
For reasons that are hard to pin down, the golfing establishment — that stoic, humorless group of talking heads, beat writers, retired pros, and country club big shots — seems obsessed with projecting an image of nobility and tradition. Maybe it's the sport's slow pace, or the way players assume a burden of honor by keeping their own scores, or that golf costs a lot of money and attracts an audience well-schooled in venerating itself. Whatever the cause, it can be smothering. I've seen it keep plenty of young people away from the game, and it's a shame, because the old guard has got it backward. Golf is not stately and ponderous; it's elusive, and it's mischievous, like a fickle Olympian god trying to screw you over with an impossible riddle.
Golf, defined by two results from the past month:
1. At the U.S. Open, on an impossible course, an American star steals the spotlight. He has finished second at the tournament an unbelievable five times (a record), but this feels like the year when he finally breaks through. He attracts attention immediately by flying in just hours before his round because he attended his daughter's middle school graduation a day earlier, preparation be damned. Sunday will be Father's Day — how symbolic. He ends up holding the 54-hole lead. The swelling crowd is behind him to a fanatical degree. And then, late in the final round, he fades. An English golfer steals the win. The American finishes second. Again.
2. At the British Open one month later, on an impossible course, a British star steals the spotlight. He has finished in the top three at majors an unbelievable seven times (a record for non-winners), but this feels like the year when he finally breaks through. At age 40, entering the late stages of his career, he doesn't know how many more chances he'll have, but he's playing in his native country in front of a sympathetic gallery. He ends up holding the 54-hole lead. The swelling crowd is behind him to a fanatical degree. And then, late in the final round, he fades. The American star roars from behind and steals the win. The Briton finishes in the top three. Again.
It never seemed to make sense, why Phil Mickelson would travel to the United Kingdom each summer to lose two tournaments on courses he didn't especially like and admittedly didn't know how to play. Perhaps it was to see the sights of the realm? He's probably seen them by now. So … golf? Why?
In the past, American golfers who didn't jibe with links-style play would just stay stateside for the week. Rather than spend the annual, workmanlike fortnight barely or not even making cuts on the old sod, Mickelson would've been better off at home, practicing for the PGA Tour's loaded August schedule and enjoying his beloved Five Guys hamburgers. Seeing Phil Mickelson hoisting the Claret Jug would be like seeing Michael Jordan winning the pennant.
Then Mickelson turned 43, suffered one of the most piercing losses of his well-pierced career, and popped over to Scotland — to win the Scottish and British Opens in consecutive weeks, the latter by a comfortable margin. They are his only two wins in the U.K., and what's most unusual is that he rarely looked out of his comfort zone. It makes you wonder why the owner of the best short game of his generation could never figure out links-style courses before.
There's a simple lesson behind Mickelson's great play of late: Getting rid of the driver isn't a bad idea! Especially on dry, fast courses where the balls rolls, and rolls, and rolls.
In case you were busy mournfully firing off one last bottle rocket, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Phil Mickelson fired a final-round 66 to surge up a star-studded leaderboard and secure his first British Open championship, winning his fifth career major with a total score of 3-under at Muirfield. "I finally did it," Mickelson bellowed triumphantly. "I finally won the Open!" As people looked at him askance, Mickelson responded, "I said, I've. Finally. Won. The. Open. What about that is unclear? The monkey is off my back." When asked if he was serious, Mickelson replied, "The Open Championship is mine. Having never been mine before. What more need be said? Nothing. Ever. Now if someone could drive me home to California it would be greatly appreciated. Now."
The Boston Red Sox, behind a walk-off home run from Mike Napoli, took a weekend series off the New York Yankees by winning the rubber match, 8-7, in 11 innings. Adding injury to insult, an MRI revealed Alex Rodriguez suffered a Grade 1 quad strain, setting back his rehabilitation. "Oh, you don't say," replied Yankees general manager Brian Cashman while sipping a cup of tea alone in his office. "Well isn't that quite something. Yes indeed. Quite something." Cashman then let out a strange high-pitched giggle that his assistant GM regarded with some concern. When asked if he was OK, Cashman responded, "Oh quite all right. Never been better! Now if you'll just leave us to our tea party, you're offending my guests. Unless of course you'd like to join us? Forever?"
Today, 156 golfers from all over the world stepped on the first tee at Muirfield with hopes of winning the third major championship of the year. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they'll also be hoping to avoid what Steve Stricker did on the last day of the previous major. It was something that professional golfers rarely do, especially when there's a camera trained on them. On the second hole of the final round of the U.S. Open, Stricker hit an honest-to-god shank.
This was a surprise for a number of reasons. In a sport that's already vanilla, Stricker warrants nary a sprinkle. He's a steady player who doesn't hit the ball a long way or take a lot of Mickelsonian chances on the course. He was also hitting a shot, a layup, that, with its shared basketball terminology, suggests the kind of thing that should come easy for a pro.
Don't you hate those people who get all sentimental about the British Open, just because golf was born in Scotland and the windy, damp, overcast atmosphere of the year's third major harks back to that romantic era when shepherds tending their flocks would take a moment to hack away at the feather-filled leather balls buried in the thick fescue off the coastal sand dunes?
Then you came to the wrong place, because I'm one of those people, and the British Open is my favorite major. I'm about to get real corny on you, but there's something spiritually satisfying about the Open Championship that is missing everywhere else. There are philosophical differences between the three American majors (snooty, democratic, and inferiority complex, in that order), but the British Open is the only physically unique major. It's a departure from the manicured greenery of the States and a return to the rugged links golf of the sport's origin. This year's host course, Muirfield, overlooks the Firth of Forth and subjects the players to the harsh winds we've come to expect from these venues. A premium will be placed on low ball flight (thus avoiding the worst of the winds), straight drives (thus avoiding the miserably thick rough and treacherous pot bunkers), and the ability to stave off the one-hole disasters that can pierce your balloon of hope. Ernie Els won the last Open at Muirfield, in 2002, with a score of -6, but the scores of past winners show that if the weather is mild, negative double digits are on the table. But who goes into a British Open expecting mild weather?
Imagine a group of cyclists grouped together for a race up a steep mountain incline. They leave on the gun, and it becomes immediately clear that some of them aren't conditioned for this kind of strain. Their legs cramp, their chests pound, their bikes begin to wobble, and they pull off to collapse on the side of the road. Others continue, showing better form, but the problem is that the ascent never stops. If anything, the climb seems to become steeper, more painful. The amateur riders drop out for lack of experience. The former legends, past their peak, swallow their pride and quit. Some take calculated risks and waste valuable energy. Some hit a patch of oil or dirt and swerve into the ground. Some look at the mountain, and the size of the task unnerves them. They all falter.
Now imagine the climb has no end. Imagine the race continues until all but the last weary rider has resigned himself to the mountain, and you have a framework for understanding the 2013 U.S. Open.
In case you were busy giving it just one more try in Lep's World 2, seriously, just one more, GODDAMNIT, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Overcoming a fearsome Merion course, Justin Rose secured his first major win, finishing the U.S. Open at 1-over and relegating Phil Mickelson to yet another second-place finish at the country's most challenging golf tournament. Mickelson, visibly disappointed by his finish, found himself alone at the driving range hours after the tournament, well after the sun had set. He was hitting ball after ball, trying to find the swing he would need to finally vanquish the tournament that had haunted him throughout his otherwise storied career. Suddenly, an ethereal figure emerged from the darkness, walking toward Mickelson's tee box. Mickelson shouted down the range, "Who's that? I coulda killed you out there." The ethereal figure calmly replied, "No sir. I set myself directly in front of you. Judging by how's you was hitting them balls I figured that's how I'd be out of harm's way." Mickelson then replied, "I was hitting fades," and ripped a drive right into the ethereal man's forehead, instantly knocking him unconscious, before saying under his breath, "Coulda used you on the putting green, motherfucker."
Behind another big game from Danny Green, the San Antonio Spurs grabbed a critical NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat, 114-104, and will head back to Miami for the final two games with a 3-2 series advantage. Noted Frenchman Boris Diaw, another key cog in the Spurs' win by effectively neutralizing LeBron James in limited minutes, said after the game, "To me, defense is not a denial, so much as it is an affirmation. There are baskets that have not yet been made, and never shall be, and my artistry comes about in their non-manifestation. Right now, I make art. As no one is making a basket. Also now. And now. And now. But not now, for on the streets of Roanoke, in the moment I said the word now, a young boy made his very first basket. And my artistry was denied as I was unable to stop it. But right now. Then, that now? That was art." Diaw then smiled smugly, before pulling a lit Gauloise out of Kawhi Leonard's nostril.
In case you were busy camping out at Man of Steel so you could see the new Elysium trailer, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Dwyane Wade turned in a vintage performance as the Miami Heat evened the NBA Finals at two games apiece with a 109-93 win over the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs' lackluster second-half effort was highlighted by the poor play of reserve guard Manu Ginobili, who was held to five overall points while the Spurs were outscored by 22 in his 26 minutes on the court. I think the performance raises the question: Can Manu win the big one? For a player of his skill level, Manu sure had a habit of disappearing last night. I say Ginobili's me-first running and gunning has officially gone too far. When will Manu develop a consistent post game, to use his physique to dominate inside? If Manu Ginobili is the supposed best sixth man in the NBA, how come he can't match Michael Jordan's six rings? And let's face it, sixth man? When will Ginobili put Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in his place and demand to be in the starting five? I think we can all agree: It's time for Manu to Man-up.
Phil Mickelson began the U.S. Open with a 67, taking the clubhouse lead after a rain-shortened first round at Merion. "It's exciting to be back out in front at the U.S. Open," Mickelson said, grinning broadly, "and I just can't wait until I finish second." As Mickelson finished speaking his smile cracked, and his eyes started tracking back and forth quickly. His lips were moving, yet the words he was speaking were difficult to make out. Looking closely, it appeared that Mickelson was listing years and names: "1999, Payne Stewart; 2002, Tiger Woods; 2004, Retief Goosen; 2006, Geoff Ogilvy; 2009, Lucas Glover." When he finished repeating his litany five times, his eyes snapped back into the center of his face and his smile returned. "Yup, second place at the U.S. Open. Again. Can't wait."
It's June, which means two things. First, the U.S. Open. Hooray! Second, and exclusive to our tiny corner of the Internet, the second of Grantland's monthly golf power rankings. Smaller hooray! The U.S. Open — so named because anyone can qualify, from the lowliest American amateur to the highliest Tiger Woods — is truly the People's tournament. And I like to think that these are truly the People's power rankings (though Karl Marx does a pretty good job with his). It's a match made in People's heaven.
The good news is that the 2013 U.S. Open is shaping up to be a really compelling test of golfer vs. course. Here's why: Merion Golf Club is one of the shortest courses to host the tournament, and while it played tough in 1981 (just five golfers under par) and 1971 (no golfers under par), that was before the young guns changed the game. Players today can bomb their drives more than 300 yards without blinking, and it has the side effect of making older, shorter courses look like pitch-and-putts. At Merion, we're dealing with a situation where four (!) par-4 holes are reachable by driver for the longest players, and reporters are asking questions like, "Will someone shoot a 62?" Nobody gives the course any respect. It's been raining in Pennsylvania for the past week, meaning the fairways and greens will hold wayward shots, and the players' jobs will be made even easier. Then again, only two players (Tiger and Rory — who else?) have ever finished -10 or better for an entire U.S. Open, so let's not count out Merion quite yet. The USGA has a way of creating difficult holes from scratch; no Augusta Nationals here, thank you very much.
One of the reasons I've learned to love the ordinary, mundane events on the PGA Tour — after spending the bulk of my life focused solely on the big ones — is how the drama of a single Sunday can permanently change a person's life.
We're used to thinking of golfers as privileged blue bloods, and it's easy to forget that outside the top 125 in America and Europe, the professional landscape is full of aspirants who grind it out on minor tours, suffer through qualifying school, and generally live week-to-week (often in their own cars) hoping for a shot at the big time. For the overwhelming majority, that shot never comes. Even the ones who get their chance usually fail to capitalize, and the opportunity recedes into the past to become a tortured memory of what might have been.
The great thing about the opening Thursday and Friday of the Masters is the existence of pure possibility. When you look at the leaderboard, you can ignore the unpleasant fact that someone named Marc Leishman is in the hunt with Dustin Johnson — one of golf's most boring humans and the darkness to Ben Crane's shimmering light — and let your mind run away with fantasies of what could happen over the weekend.
"Holy shit," you might say, "it's shaping up for a Sunday duel between Sergio and Freddy Couples!"
And while that may not be the most likely outcome, nobody can prove you wrong. The future spreads out before you, like a beautiful par 5 just waiting to be eagled. Nothing is off the table. So let's do this. Let's allow our minds to roam over the wild terrain of potential and find the 10 best possible stories that could maybe almost possibly materialize at Augusta.
Super Bowl XLVII was also the final game for one of the legends of an era, Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis, who has seen his share of controversy throughout his career, left the stage with his trademark piety, saying, "Man, I didn't play well enough for us to win, but the team and God really picked me up. Haven't gotten away with anything like that in a loooooong time." Lewis then winked, pointed to the sky, and said, "I owe you one, big guy!" God responded, "Dude owes me more than one. Way more. Man, sometimes I have no idea why I keep bailing him out. But we go way back. I dunno, Pete is telling me to cut him off, but then I see those big sweet eyes, and I just can't help myself."