Tiger or Phil? At the 2018 U.S. Open, the pendulum has swung

Phil Mickelson stole the show in the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and it wasn’t pretty.

Image of Phil Mickelson

Courtesy USGA.org/Darren Carroll

GINGER or Mary Ann? The Stones or the Beatles? For the last 20 years or so, we golf fans have drawn our own line of demarcation: You were for the buff, chiseled and immensely talented Tiger Woods, or for the pudgy, wild-hitting underdog Phil Mickelson. Today, I crossed the line.

Like most women golf fans, I camped out with Phil for exactly 19 years. It was at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999 that he won me over with his insistence that he would be on a plane if wife Amy went into labor. Other sportswriters told me not to believe it, that it’s not everyday Phil would lead a U.S. Open and if he had the chance to win he would stay. I said, it’s not everyday he’d have his first child and I believed him. Payne Stewart won the Open with an unforgettable putt on the 18th green, and the next day Amy gave birth to their daughter Amanda.

Ever since then, I rooted for Phil over Tiger. I chose the cuddly bear over the unrelenting machine, a goofy grin over a guarded demeanor, family man over hound dog.

At first I was in the minority. Tiger, after all, spent 683 weeks at No. 1. He wrapped up a career Grand Slam when he was 24. Championships and endorsements made him the richest athlete in sports, and golfers wanted to be him.

Then Woods’ sex scandal and subsequent divorce cost him whatever women fans he had left who weren’t sleeping with him, and his back surgeries took him out of the game. Phil and Amy had three kids by now, and Phil kept on signing autographs and grinning at the crowds who came out at U.S. Opens to root him on in the one major he hadn’t won. Tiger seemed to hit rock bottom a year ago with a DUI arrest from mixing pain medications.

But here’s the thing about Tiger. He’s owned his mistakes off the course and sought treatment. And even though he hasn’t won a tournament since 2013 and never has to win one again, he’s trying. On Thursday, in the featured pairing with the world watching, he started the U.S. Open with a triple-bogey on the first hole. It was at times painful to watch him. But he kept playing, like the rest of us do.

In my Saturday morning league, I was talking with a companion about how my swing had disappeared for about a month. I had lost my feel and my scores ballooned. Some days I wanted to quit, but I just kept playing, thinking the next shot could go in. I imagined what it must be like to be Tiger Woods working through something like this on such a big stage, with everyone watching his search for his game.

After our round, the TV was tuned to the Open. And there was Phil on the 12th hole, putting for par from above the hole. His putt rolled by the hole, and he ran down and swatted it, while it was still rolling, back up the hill. We watched in shock as the Fox crew said, “Stunning.” Mickelson made 8 on the hole, plus a two-stroke penalty for a 10. He and Andrew Johnston walked off the green laughing.

Initially I was furious. Yes, John Daly did that at Pinehurst 19 years ago, but John Daly is nobody’s role model. It was as if Phil didn’t care, had given up. David Fay said on the air, “That’s basically his way of saying ‘no mas.’ “

But as I listened to the broadcast crew, I started to cut Phil some slack. Maybe he had just snapped, had an all-too human moment of frustration. Bobby Jones ripped up a scorecard once. Couldn’t Phil break a rule? Maybe after the round he’d own up to that, sort of like his “I am such an idiot” moment of contrition when he double-bogeyed the 18th at Winged Foot to lose the 2006 U.S. Open.

So I waited to hear what he had to say. And here is what he told Curtis Strange: “Look, I don’t mean disrespect… I know it’s a two-shot penalty. At that time I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did it.”

Ah, so Phil was just putting the rules of golf to work for him? Maybe that would have been believable, except that he then he went on to say, “In that situation I was just going back and forth, and I would gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.”

Phil Mickelson just didn’t want to embarrass himself anymore. And so he stopped a ball in motion to end the embarrassment. And now I’m embarrassed for him, because he did the one thing an athlete never does. He quit.

Tiger didn’t play on Saturday, but that’s not because he quit. He missed the cut on Friday despite pushing himself to birdies on the last two holes. I know he’ll be back out there again soon, missing putts and embarrassing himself and trying hard to win.

I’ll be rooting for him.

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