It’s been four weeks since I picked up a golf club. Okay, that’s not entirely true.
It’s been four weeks since I picked up a golf club. Okay, that’s not entirely true. On two occasions, I’ve fallen off the ball, rushed to the range and binge-hit hundreds of balls. Classic addiction-relapse behaviour. And before you ask, no I’m not ‘golfed out’. Like most of us, I never seem to tire of the ruddy game, no matter how much it bullies me about (the next time you’re wondering about the psychology of sadism, just consider what you let golf do to you, but that’s another story for another time). No sir, I just had an epiphany that while I spent a significant number of hours playing, beating balls on the range, watching videos and trying to ape Walter Hagen’s gorgeous grip, somewhere, the world was passing me by. When they say life is out there, I’m pretty sure they don’t mean out there on the island green.
Of course, philosophical reflections about golf usually coincide with an extended stretch of ridiculous play and I have no qualms about admitting that if I were to add up all my scores in 2016, the number would exceed the 7,254 yards that Oakmont, the 2016 US Open venue, stretches out to. Cut to the chase, I’ve not been playing well and have devised a rationale to lay off the game, and the purpose of this write-up is to convince you what a good time I’m having not playing. But I’ll pitch that sophistry later.
There’s nothing quite like the US Open to bring golf back into your life. Physically brutal and mentally unforgiving, it puts players through the grinder like an American contact sport. Remember an injured Tiger Woods winning the 2008 US Open after an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate? That round was all about mind over matter—a bout with no ringer. But that’s not even the first thought that comes into my mind every time the US Open comes around. My thoughts inevitably fly to Phil Mickelson, six-time runner-up and the man whose hunger to win this championship is unmatched on the planet. “Lefty’s” litany of near-misses at his national open is a long one, and cuts deep: “my career is built on failure,” he remarked wryly at the pre-tournament press conference at Oakmont, referring to his pattern of bouncing back from his failures at this tournament with wins elsewhere. At Winged Foot, in 2006, Mickelson was one par away on the 72nd hole from victory before dropping a stroke to lose the tournament—an experience he described as “heartbreaking”. But asked to name his biggest disappointment and Mickelson brought up his final nine meltdown at Merion in 2013 when he bogeyed three of the final six holes. That cost him the lead and the championship.
PGA Tour’s Mike McAllister wrote a brilliant piece earlier this week in which he spoke about the depth of Mickelson’s failures at the US Open: “Mickelson not only has U.S. Open failures, he now has categories for those failures.” How Mickelson bounced back from, self-admittedly, his most disappointing failure at Merion with his biggest accomplishment—winning the Open Championship a month later—is now lore. Mickelson didn’t shy away from admitting that he obsesses about winning the US Open—the one missing link from a career grand slam. “I could BS you and tell you I don’t think about it,” he said. “No, I think about it all the time. This is the tournament I want to win the most to complete the four majors. There’s no question.”
At the time of writing this column, the second round has been suspended due to darkness, with about half the field yet to complete and Mickelson, at seven-over-par with one hole to go, looks certain to miss the cut. He’s probably very disappointed, but certainly not gutted. Mickelson has a high ceiling for angst at the US Open.
In the lead is the mercurial, supremely athletic and long-hitting Dustin Johnson. The American has a lot in common with his countryman: like Mickelson, Johnson is a long hitter, plays for broke and, sadly, is fast acquiring a reputation for losing big tournaments at the death. To be fair, that’s also a testimony to how many big tournaments Johnson gets himself into the mix in: at four-under, he lies tied with unheralded Andrew Landry, who sauntered about Oakmont with nonchalance and a four-under 66 to boot on the opening day. Even Sergio Garcia, the Spaniard, ‘El Nino’ and the ‘best player never to win a major’ (at least till Johnson came along), is in the chasing pack at two-under. I’m going to refrain from commenting on Johnson’s or Garcia’s chances because now I really think there might be something to the commentator’s curse. And both these gentlemen have come way too close too many times. Both are way too talented and have a brand of game that’s tailor-made for the US Open.
The Indian challenge, unfortunately, will not be making it to the weekend. Both Anirban Lahiri (11-over) and Jeev Milkha Singh (15-over) failed to find any answers to Oakmont’s challenge. It was a nostalgic return to Majors for Singh and the veteran must be ruing a lost chance to return to form. If I had to put money on someone then it would be Bubba Watson. Oakmont can’t be tamed by brute strength or mollycoddled into submission, and Watson’s combination of power and creativity will be hard to beat if he gets his putter going.
On that note, I will also be dusting off my clubs, pulling out the putter on the carpet, and just start thinking about the game. What I’m not going to think about is my golf swing—that path always seems to lead to more confusion and anguish—just go out there and play the game. After watching two rounds of the US Open on television, I’ve got the feel all right. In fact, there’s this fantastic new swing thought I have…
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game