Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Clubs Say Calloway, But They Mean Acme

Sometime this afternoon, possibly mid-afternoon, but more likely towards evening, the world of golf what it dreads but expects. Phil Mickelson, with the U.S. Open in his grasp, will hit a drive off a hot dog stand, or perhaps four-putt from 10 feet to put up a number that makes victory seemingly impossible.

Note the adverb there. Should the inevitable disaster take place before the 18th hole, it's possible Mickelson will hit a couple of his impossibly wonderful shots to win when all looks lost. Unlikely mind you, but certainly possible. Phil's career has snatched victory and defeat out of each other's jaws so often they've both had to have oral surgery.

That magnificently erratic approach to the sport is why golf fans love Mickelson, and why he's never won a U.S. Open. The U.S. Golf Association arranges its prime tournament on the principle that to the boring belong the spoils. Put the ball in the fairway 18 times, hit 18 greens, take two putts every time for four rounds, and you're our ideal champion.

Well, what fun is that?  The first and greatest of all golf writers, Bernard Darwin, accurately observed that writing about golf played well was dull work. What is there to say about a drive, an iron and two putts, anyway?

More to the point, who plays golf that way? The pros don't. Check the stats with which they're trying to ruin broadcasting of golf these days. The best pro hits 80 percent of the fairways and greens. The best putters miss far more 15-20 footers than they make. As for the rest of us, we laugh. A round of golf for anybody with a handicap over 12, which is, oh, 99.6 percent of everyone who's ever teed it up, is four hours or so of dealing with disasters, all of which we know damn well are our own fault.

There has never been a Hall of Fame golfer more gifted at generating disasters that are his own fault than Mickelson. I cherish the memory of a drive I saw him hit on the 18th at Oakland Hills during a catastrophic week for him and the U.S. at the Ryder Cup. Imagine the rainbow slice of duffer who could hit the ball 400 yards. Mickelson's ball sailed past the out of bounds markers, left club property and possibly the state of Michigan, too. Bad for him, bad for the U.S. team, but only people who take the sport too seriously were offended and horrified. The rest of us duffers thought "My brother!"

So here's a guy who makes the same horrible errors we do. Except, he's one of the sport's historic champions, rich, happy, wonderful family, the whole bit. Naturally golf fans love Mickelson. He is them, with the minor difference that he can really play.

Perhaps Phil will tee off at 3:20 p.m. today and play the boring great golf he has wistfully admitted he'd like to try sometime. Maybe he'll hit fairways and greens, grind out a par 70 or maybe a 69, and win his first Open as his gifted competitors succumb to disasters to which they're not accustomed at all.

If so, golf fans will be thrilled for Mickelson. But I suspect they'll feel a bit of sneaky disappointment, too. They want to see the safe land on Phil's head, and THEN have him bounce up and catch the Roadrunner.


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