One of the luxuries of golf is you don’t have to root for anything. Maybe there’s a hometown favorite or a player you identify with for whatever reason. But you’re not conscripted to a lifetime of rooting interest based on where you were born, how you were raised, or some other sick devotion. You can let it all unfold in front of you without personal investment. That said, some scenarios and outcomes are better than others, so here’s a 2022 U.S. Open rooting guide based on the current state of play in the professional game.
Men’s professional golf has been a sport allergic to public conflict. Locker room beefs and petty jabs in the press have long been a part of its history, but the practice is to vigorously avoid those public displays of disagreement.
With the war between LIV Golf and PGA Tour officially declared, we have out-in-the-open uncomfortableness and side-choosing. There are rights and wrongs in this conflict and you can choose wisely, but it’s also possible to pull a seat up to the table to take in this spicy feast. As a golf consumer, it’s a unique, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances that have provoked a drama in sport and this is the rare week when both sides come together under the same locker room roof. This divide is not good in the long term for golf but we’re dealing with this instant championship.
It’s not a full-on Sharks and Jets situation, but the LIV boys probably have fewer friends than last year’s U.S. Open and might be sticking together more than if they’d not jumped to a rival outfit. Tea leaves will be read, and greater meaning applied to who’s talking to who and if there’s recruiting afoot. It could be awkward, weird, and perhaps at times hostile.
The AP’s Doug Ferguson asked Rory McIlroy on Tuesday if he’d lost respect for some of the LIV jumpers for a move that might be an acknowledgement that they can’t cut it out on the big tour anymore. “Yes, because a lot of these guys are in their late 40s,” McIlroy responded before making an additional distinction. “In Phil’s case, early 50s. Yeah, I think everyone in this room and they would say to you themselves that their best days are behind them.”
Harold Varner III, in the field this week and rumored as a potential LIV signee and playing a practice round alongside LIV headliner Dustin Johnson, was seen liking a random tweet quite critical of McIlroy’s Greg Norman criticism.
— Matthew Wiley (@wiley77) June 14, 2022
It’s created an edgy and atypical undercurrent at The Country Club. The tension and stakes of this championship aren’t exactly wanting, but rooting for a situation that might pit players from these rival factions come the weekend is something the golf, and sports consumer, should be rooting for. It would further heighten the drama and stakes.
The U.S. Open is also cherished for its ability to provoke befuddled temper tantrums. There’s been less to cherish on that front in recent years, which is probably a relief for the USGA after taking a battering for a few consecutive rounds. This is not a demand for some goofy setup choice, but maybe a desire to see the envelope pushed again at a place where that’s possible. The Country Club carries an aesthetic befitting the national championship and has a history with it, as opposed to some recent newbie venues that were vulnerable to player grenades. Don’t slow down the fairways and these blind landing spots with over-watering. Put the pins in places that might make the mentally weak wail. There are some delectable false fronts that must become stars of the week as well.
This week’s U.S. Open course, The Country Club in Brookline, is one of the toughest courses in the country.
A significant part of the challenge occurs at two unique, monster par 5s that will present the world’s best with multiple tests. pic.twitter.com/FsLHcRww1w
— The Fried Egg (@the_fried_egg) June 12, 2022
Let’s once again see players frustrated, agitated, gazing angrily as balls roll back to their feet. It’s not our problem, we’re the consumers not the players, and reveling in the harder examination is part of what sets this championship apart from the others. This course can do that again.
We hit on conflict and punishment before we got to any players, which is appropriate for a U.S. Open. But let’s now consider one of its characters.
Is it naive to think Rory is the top non-Tiger fan favorite given Phil’s recent exile? Mickelson absolutely luxuriated in that title just 13 months ago prowling around the PGA Championship at Kiawah. McIlroy is one of the rare players who could ignite the celebratory scene we got Sunday afternoon at the Canadian Open. As the major drought hits nearly eight years, and given the Boston market (not that one Bryson), a Rory run at the trophy would amplify the atmosphere and championship in a way maybe no one else in the field could on Sunday. Greg Norman might not like it, but that’s a scene worth pulling for if you’re a golf fan. Whether you fully agree with him or not, the game is better off with one of its stars like Rory holding a major trophy again.
4. Justin Thomas
We’ve written extensively here about the swooning effect of JT’s shotmaking, especially over the past few months. Setting aside all the off-the-course conflict for a JT golf show might be a nice momentary salve. He’s also a talent worthy of a historic major pile-up on the resume. Going back-to-back is not setting the bar too high and the PGA Tour could use its superstar allies further boosting their own appeal.
5. A playoff
An outcome perhaps only the diehards and traditionalists used to root for at this championship. But it’s been 14 years since this major went extras, and that PGA experience last month wasn’t so bad, was it? A two-hole aggregate, ideally bringing in an element of the first item on this list, during the longest days of the year is something to root for … just don’t let it run into a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Where has our swaggering king gone? This is not to say Brooks has been absent from major contention in the last 16 months or so, he’s just been less out in front with his play and words. He’d become the undisputed alpha of majors fields but it’s hard to say he still holds that title. Most of that is due to a spate of injuries that have diminished him off-and-on since that last major title, the 2019 PGA at Bethpage. It’s not that the pro game is dull by any stretch, but injecting the old Brooks with a new burst of major championship contention conviction would be yet another delightful element for the golf consumer.
He’s already gotten testy with the press to start the week. Now we need him back in the hunt again and calling his shots somewhere from a place between deluded and justifiable overconfidence.
7. Zinger unleashed
With NBC doing their usual break from men’s golf coverage at the Masters, Paul Azinger has been on the sideline since LIV reappeared and materialized as an actual product. We need Zinger unleashed this week. Need him hollering from the booth about the conflict. Need him throwing Johnny Miller heat about the players not meeting the moment of a U.S. Open challenge. He started the week off hot trying to shout questions at Phil during his press conference.
Paul Azinger learning how it feels to get the Heisman! Welcome to the ink stained crowd PA! pic.twitter.com/ixkDTqA7wV
— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) June 13, 2022
I’m actually excited to have him back on the call and need NBC to just let him run, adding an entertainment value to the product. Give me Zinger hollering!
8. LIV Schadenfreude
Are you rooting for Patrick Reed? Bryson DeChambeau? Kevin Na? Sergio Garcia? This is not to actively root against anyone, but a little schadenfreude isn’t the worst thing. If some struggled around Brookline, they could seek comfort in their bank accounts. On a more serious point, whether its from distraction or poor form or old age, many/most/all? of the LIV commits have been non-factors on leaderboards this year. From about 2014 to 2020, Dustin Johnson was an auto-contender at this championship. But he’s much less predictable right now. The contention expectations from the LIV set are not high.
9. Not Phil
It would be an absolute circus that the anarchists might love. Deserve got nothing to do with it. But there’s no one in this field that more deserves to have the U.S. Open title on his resume and the trophy on his mantle than Phil Mickelson. Just not this one at this moment in time.