SAN FRANCISCO Remember that chatter about how Phil Mickelson has Tiger Woods’ number now?
Remember how Bubba Golf was all the rage after Bubba Watson twisted the pimento cheese out of a wedge shot from a forest to win the Masters two months ago?
How could you forget? That stuff’s fresher than the mustard in your refrigerator.
Then Thursday at the U.S. Open happened.
Reality got wrenched back into its natural orbit.
Woods, who knows major championships the way Donald Trump knows hairspray, made sure of it.
What was supposed to be this U.S. Open’s glamour grouping – Tiger, Phil and Bubba – turned into a one-man show that felt as familiar as watching a favorite movie for the fourth – or perhaps 15th – time. It’s too early to say we know how this story ends because there’s an abundance of menace spread around The Olympic Club, but the big idea of putting three stars together turned into big numbers for two guys and a big reminder of how good the third guy can still be.
After Woods shot a 1-under-par 69 that seemed as simple as a bowl of cereal, and Mickelson criss-crossed his way to a disappointing 76 and Watson posted 78, the immediate question was whether Phil and Bubba will be around to watch what Tiger does on the weekend.
Don’t count on it. Not the way they’re ripping over-cooked drivers on a course that’s as unforgiving as a calculus final.
For a pairing designed to sparkle, two-thirds of it fizzled.
It was almost awkward at times.
Woods would gunshot another iron shot off the tee, hitting it into the short grass, taking the path of least resistance and then either Mickelson or Watson or both would rip at a driver and watch it go sailing sideways the way Woods has done too often the past two years.
Mickelson talked more to gallery members he hit or nearly hit than he did to Woods. He and Watson practically had to reintroduce themselves to Woods on every green.
The morning, gray and chilly, started badly for Mickelson when his opening tee shot nested in the top of a cypress tree, forcing him to re-tee hitting his third shot on the first hole of the championship. Woods was already standing on the green by the time Mickelson hit a drive he could find.
Like I said, awkward.
Woods had the good manners not to tell Mickelson about the ball he lost in the Wells Fargo Championship last month at Quail Hollow Club. It was never found, but rumor had it a fan ran off with the special souvenir and Woods was not penalized. Mickelson wasn’t so fortunate.
That was just the start for Mickelson. He chunked a chip shot at his second hole (No. 10) and made a 10-footer to avoid a double bogey there. On his third hole, Mickelson three-putted for bogey. By that time Watson was 2 over par and Woods had to be wondering if he’d stumbled into a pro-am pairing.
Mickelson was so pumped by the birdie he made at No. 13, he tossed the ball to a fan on the 14th tee. Lefty then yanked another tee shot right (it was his theme Thursday), bouncing it off a different spectator.
He gave that guy a ball for the bruise he’ll have.
“Hey Phil, next time you can hit me,” a guy said.
“Why don’t you go stand in the fairway,” another guy cracked.
Mickelson just smirked.
“I didn’t play very well, obviously,” Mickelson said. “You could see that.”
If you weren’t ducking for cover.
Watson didn’t get much right either. He seems a man disconnected from his game, his new life as a father and hyper-celebrity having distracted him.
Having finished his chop-shop 78 by lunch time, Watson was asked his impression of playing partner Woods’ opening 69 that glistened like the soft mid-day sun. He found the sweet spot with his response.
“That was the old Tiger,” Watson said. “That was beautiful to watch.”