BROOKLINE — Phil Mickelson was always going to be the litmus test of the US Open, always going to be the best indicator of whether his leading role in defections to the new Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour would draw a line of demarcation among fans and golfers, or even among golfers and golfers.
Even after the grilling Mickelson endured Monday in a media session, the enduring and oft-repeated question since has been how the fans would treat him when he stepped up to his first round tee time Thursday at The Country Club. They’ve always loved him before — but would they still love him now, after his blatant money grab, after his obvious moral relativism, after his reemergence in London last week to compete in the first LIV event?
From the first shouts of ‘We love you Phil’ to the many, many variations on that theme that followed, it was clear from the outset there would be no great confrontation or evidence of some great golf schism. For the occasional jeer of “sell-out” or sneer of “you’re the worst,” Mickelson was far more likely to be serenaded by Happy Birthday wishes to mark his 52nd birthday.
The crowd was not his problem.
The golf was.
Mickelson played awful, turning in one of the worst scores of the day, an 8-over-par 78 that left him looking down at only seven golfers, in a six-way tie for 144th. His putter was completely unreliable, his body language was decidedly unhappy, and his day read like a bingo card of bad golf. Bogeys, bunkers, and bad lies, drop zones, provisionals, and treks into the woods.
And of course, the four-putt, the low point of a day filled with golfing low points.
Swinging from the tee box on the par 3 sixth hole, there was a moment when it seemed the Phil Mickelson of old was making an appearance. With the majestic Country Club course setting the scene, with comfortable temperatures and soft winds swirling at his back, Mickelson sent a golf ball soaring toward the green with the touch and panache that had catapulted him to the most rarefied air in his sport, eliciting cheers from the galleries not out of sympathy or support for an embattled man, but for the simple appreciation of a beautiful golf shot.
When the ball came to rest about 11 feet from the pin, all but begging to be turned into a birdie, Mickelson flashed a few signature thumbs-up to the crowds as he strode up the fairway.
But four putts later the evidence was in: This wasn’t going to be the Mickelson of old; just an old Phil Mickelson.
The graying stubble still lining his cheeks and chin only add to the evolving image of a man whose life has changed so dramatically and so drastically in a little more than a year. The Cinderella who magically won the PGA title at age 50 — the oldest to win a major crown — is back to riding a pumpkin now, one as plain, drab, and sponsorless as you can imagine. The Mickelson who emerged on the course Thursday looked nothing like the walking billboard of his past, wearing plain gray pants and a black golf shirt with nothing but a silhouette of his own logo on the chest, his golf bag also embroidered with that same image while absent of any corporate logos.
Like a muted palette for a muted career, Mickelson took his practice drives on the range and rolled his practice putts on the green, no longer the poster boy for KMPG or Callaway, the poster boy for something else entirely now. He’s taken more hits than any of his LIV co-conspirators, and deservedly so for the flippant and disrespectful words he shared with reporter Alan Shipnuck on his way out, when he admitted how awful it was to work with the same Saudis who commit human rights violations and who murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi but doing it anyway so he could finally stick it to the greedy PGA Tour. Oh, and pay off some pretty massive personal gambling debts along the way, too.
But if he passed some sort of fan-reaction litmus test on Thursday, those fellow LIVers like Dustin Johnson, who played in the group just ahead of him, or Louis Oosthuizen, who played in his own threesome (along with Irishman and PGA loyalist Shane Lowry) didn’t even face one. Fans were completely indifferent to their defections.
“People were great; loved it,’’ Mickelson said to three reporters, including Sports Illustrated, in the parking lot before leaving the course. “People here in Boston always have created a great environment for sporting events. And they’ve been amazing for our golf tournaments. And today was no different. It was cool.’’
The crowd wasn’t the problem. The golf was, no matter how much Mickelson tried to hide it.
“I really enjoyed the test,’’ he said. “I think it’s a spectacular golf course, set up terrific. And I really struggled with the putter the first few holes just like I did last week. I’ll get in the groove. But it’s hard. I’ll get in the groove. I love this setup and I’m looking forward to having another chance at the golf course. I’m playing better than I’m scoring. And I enjoy another opportunity to take on this course.’’
Part of the appeal of the LIV Tour, Mickelson has said, is golfer-friendly tweaks to the competitive format, among them a three-day tournament with no one getting cut. Wonder how he feels about two-day tournaments, because it looks as if that’s all he’s getting here at the Open.