This 2022 Open Championship has been nearly as much about celebrating golf’s history as it is about presenting this year’s tournament. It’s in the country where the game originated. There’s the venue, the home of golf, with the word “old” right there in its name. There’s the oldest major, hitting a nice round number that’s plastered everywhere you look and available for purchase many times over in the merchandise tent, 150. There have been multiple ceremonies around town and at the course celebrating the historic characters and champions.
Except for one, who might as well have been one of the game’s ghosts based upon the first three days this week. Only one player in the field, Tiger Woods, has won more majors than Phil Mickelson. Aside from a few glimpses and tweeted photos from a practice walk here or there, he’s been nearly invisible during a week that’s been all about celebrating history and historic figures.
It seemed the R&A made an effort to keep things that way once the championship started. Woods, ranked 994th in the world, drew the most recent men’s major winner, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Max Homa, the 19th-ranked player in the world and a social media fan favorite, right in the heart of the afternoon marquee tee times cluster. Mickelson, by contrast, was off at 7:30 a.m. local with Kurt Kitayama and Lucas Herbert, two talented world players with potential success coming their way. But not the company that Mickelson would keep in majors in the pre-LIV world.
Maybe you think Phil has not reached the heights of Tiger or is not worthy of some honored spot on the tee sheet due to his profile. Let’s set aside that history and profile, and look more recent. The men’s major winners of the last two years – maybe you forgot, but Phil is actually among this group! – went off in marquee groups with playing partners all inside the top 25 in the world, save for two, 38th-ranked Harold Varner III playing alongside Jon Rahm, and that Woods guy joining Fitzpatrick. If you’re a recent major winner, and Phil is one of them, you’ve got juice and are playing with other top-ranked players. Kitayama and Herbert, again strong players, both fall outside the top 50 in the world.
Whether it was deliberate or not, Mickelson was buried out of view. The pairing came after Mickelson passed on Monday’s Celebration of Champions event and Tuesday’s Champions Dinner. As Phil told it after the round, the absences would fall under convenient ambiguity of “mutual decision.”
“The R&A contacted me a couple weeks before and said, look, we don’t think it’s a great idea you go, but if you want to, you can,” Mickelson said after his opening-round 72. “I just didn’t want to make a big deal about it, so I said fine. We both kind of agreed that it would be best if I didn’t.”
So he didn’t have the ceremony, and he didn’t have the marquee tee time. But he still had the golf. Arriving on the first tee in what’s become something of a trademark look, all black, Mickelson went off with Kitayama and Herbert to moderate applause and quarter-full grandstands up around the tee. Those stands were overflowing when Woods came through hours later, and they may be for Phil on Friday when he plays later. But the contrast was stark in the first round as Phil’s strange week proceeded.
Phil Mickelson putting on the first green on Thursday (Getty)
The outfit alone was odd, even by Phil standards. A black quarter-zip over what appeared to be some sort of athleisure t-shirt, and the stubble that’s been present since his return to public view in June. The only logos visible, aside from his own, were on his woods when the headcovers were removed and his shoes. His caddie, brother Tim, wore a solid blank black hat.
Phil is playing The Open in … a t-shirt? pic.twitter.com/y8MXtbtBvz
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) July 14, 2022
It’s too soon to say that this carries the sadness of Mays in a Mets jersey or Emmitt Smith on the Cardinals, but the scene of Phil abandoned by #TheBrands and out early at St. Andrews with Kurt Kitayama is just as bizarre. Once off, the crowd was much more muted than at the U.S. Open at Brookline, where an American gallery was happy to see him after his exile. He certainly drew a crowd; they were just relatively quiet. It was early. There were shouts for Phil, often from American accents, as he came back to the clubhouse over the last several holes. One person complimented his calves, which were hidden behind pants. He often replied with the usual thumbs-up when there was something shouted.
Like the proper Open golf crowd we hear so much about in the U.S., there were tempered compliments for the good shots, like for the beautiful soft flop up the hill in front of the fifth green. Of course, that flop was followed by a missed putt and disappointing par on one of the course’s two par 5s. That was a good summation of the story of his actual golf, which has felt ancillary to everything else this year. Some good shots, a few of the usual wild tee shots coming in, and a bunch of missed and lipped putts that left a lower number out there. The result was an even-par 72 in fairly timid winds on an Old Course that was yielding rounds in the mid 60s. One of the great quirks of The Old Course is the shared greens, so Mickelson found himself on the other side of putting surfaces from vocal PGA Tour loyalists, such as Billy Horschel and Justin Thomas, as he was coming back to the clubhouse.
After the round, he was asked if he found it “sad” that he was in this current position, shut out from so much of the celebratory and commemorative aspects of the week. “I think that I couldn’t be more excited and ecstatic with where I’m at,” he replied. Then he made sure to add “I couldn’t be happier” on two more occasions when pressed about his current station.
Behind him on the tee sheet were Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, LIV comrades also playing out of view of marquee group coverage. DeChambeau drew the largest crowds at the Loop, the stretch of holes from 7 through 11 at the end of the course, and he rewarded them by nearly driving the green at the seventh for an easy tap-in birdie. It was relayed on the broadcast that Ian Poulter, another LIV player, was booed on the first tee before nearly hooking one out of bounds.
There was no antipathy for Phil like that, more just crowds gathering to look at the controversial curiosity followed by relative ambivalence. As he walked to the fourth tee, he picked out a kid on the rope line and tried to toss a ball to him. The kid missed it and the ball scattered across a cart path before it was eventually collected and dropped off with no applause or reaction from him or the onlooking crowd. Eventually, an older gentleman in the group with the kid, told him, “Well, that’s nice.”
The word “sad” may be too strong. But in a week when the game’s history and its historical figures have been at the forefront, the scene and lack thereof around Phil has been conspicuous and surreal.