Do you like your sports with a side of drama? Those who follow professional golf know that its combination of thin-skinned players, nerve-jangling contests, and razor’s-edge precision requirements often result in a simmering hothouse of soap operatics. But even by its typical reality-TV standards, golf has never seen a summer like this.
As we careen toward the start of this week’s U.S. Open, the game has exploded into a contentious rivalry between the PGA Tour and the long-rumored, now-an-actual-thing Saudi-backed LIV Tour, which has poached a handful of the sport’s biggest stars with the promise of massive purses and more manageable schedules. As of this writing, four former U.S. Open champions have jumped ship to Greg Norman’s breakaway group: Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Graeme McDowell, and Martin Kaymer. And this is in addition to other previous major winners, including Patrick Reed and the poster boy for the controversy, Phil Mickelson. Following last week’s first official LIV event in London, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan scorched the Earth by indefinitely suspending all of the participants from future PGA events. So why are so many of them playing in the U.S. Open this week?
Even the short version is interminable, but suffice it to say that in the byzantine world of professional golf, the PGA Tour is the administrative body for most events, but not the four majors. The USGA, which runs the U.S. Open, has decided to allow qualified players who have jumped ship to LIV to participate this week, which is awkward. There has been plenty of public back-and-forth between both camps, and now they’re all getting back together for what is essentially a nightmare family dinner staged at our annual national championship. So it’s time to preview some golf and revel in the glorious, squeamish unpleasantness that’s about to unfold. —Elizabeth Nelson
What Can We Expect From Brookline?
Nelson: The venue for the 2022 U.S. Open—a pedigreed course certain enough of its own stature to simply call itself the Country Club—is appropriately embroidered in the history of American golf. It was the site of the legendary 1913 U.S. Open where 20-year-old Francis Ouimet outdueled the heavily favored Harry Vardon, and the venue where the American team stormed back to capture a breathtaking, often contentious Ryder Cup victory over the Europeans in 1999. All three of the U.S. Opens hosted here have ended in a playoff. Brookline has seen some stuff.
Located in a suburb of Boston, the Country Club is one of the oldest courses in America, and some of its more anachronistic characteristics have the potential to wreak havoc with contemporary players, particularly the “bomb and gouge” crowd. Known for its miniscule greens and unkempt lies, this is not a course you can simply overpower. At 7,033 yards, the Country Club is by no means a pushover distance-wise, and with its narrow fairways and the USGA’s typically penal long rough, it’s likely that the contenders will be players whose strengths lie in hitting it straight and scrambling well. Pay particularly close attention to the diabolical 131-yard par-3 11th. Like the 12th at Augusta National, it’s the kind of little hole where major dreams are dashed.
What Will a Post-LIV U.S. Open Look Like?
Megan Schuster: Ahh, the billion-dollar elephant in the room. Now that LIV is officially underway, the divide between it and the PGA Tour is out in the open, plain as day to see. Players on both tours spent last week taking shots at each other, and now this week, they all get to come together and play in the U.S. Open.
How will this all look? Will there be any extra tension on the course? How many times can Phil dodge questions like he dodged golf balls in that one Mizzen+Main ad? And what will happen if fans have to contend with a LIV competitor near the lead on Sunday, or even [gulp] winning the whole thing? (Rather unlikely given the wider talent pool that’s currently associated with LIV, but I guess you never know!)
I’ll leave the Phil of it all to my colleague Matt Dollinger farther down in this piece. And as far as tension, well, that seems inevitable. The likes of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas spent a good chunk of the weekend rallying around the PGA Tour at the expense of LIV organizers, and armchair-psychologist golf fans have already started inventing beef between PGA players like Jordan Spieth and LIV players like Kevin Na at the Country Club (whether valid or not). A run from Johnson or DeChambeau would certainly add vinegar to the kindergarten-volcano this has all turned into. And it would undoubtedly force NBC’s hand on the broadcast—delving into the murky waters of this issue probably much more than anyone would want to.
But unless one of them blazes through the field, or McIlroy decides to dedicate every shot he hits this weekend to the honor of the PGA Tour, I could see this pretty quickly reverting into typical golf-eze: play the course, not your opponent.
What Will the Reception Be for Phil Mickelson?
Matt Dollinger: For a long time, it was easy to root against Phil Mickelson. Maybe even fun. Perhaps you thought he was phony; maybe you preferred Tiger; or maybe you couldn’t stand the way he played, or whined, or bristled at this or that. But as Phil grew older, his annoying aura started to wear off. He took himself less seriously. He leaned into the fun of the game, entertained fans, and even started to win over his longtime nemesis, Tiger. Lefty went from a guy you loved to see implode to a guy who could make galleries explode. If Tiger wasn’t contending, most fans would gladly take Phil in his place. He wasn’t the GOAT, but he was an unlikely people’s champ. A country club kid who had somehow won the hearts of blue-collar fans at Bethpage and pretty much everywhere else on Tour.
Phil’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t a green jacket or the Claret Jug. It was becoming one of the most likable players on Tour—an upset for the ages. When he won the 2021 PGA Championship at 50 years old, fans swarmed him like a hometown hero claiming his first title:
One year later, Phil skipped the 2022 PGA Championship. He couldn’t defend his title because he wasn’t ready to face the music. He had brushed aside Jamal Khashoggi’s death like an unfortunate three-putt. Then, after laying low for months and pretending like he might be remorseful, he took the money from the Saudis anyway. Now he’s made his LIV debut, and he’s sheepishly showing up to the U.S. Open in hopes bygones can be bygones. Well, Phil, I’d say I hate to break it to you but your eyes already gave away the ending: It ain’t happening.
At his Monday press conference, Phil looked like a shell of the gregarious champion we once knew. No hat, no logos, no substance, no laughs, no smiles, no backbone, no answers. He looked faker than a Tom Brady golf video. It’s not that we can’t believe what Phil has done, it’s that he seemingly can’t believe it either. He’s not just sportswashing for the Saudis. He’s washing away everything he’s ever worked for.
While Johnson might not care what people think, and DeChambeau is already hated by the masses, the LIV jump seems to have severely impacted Phil’s psyche. He might have needed that $200 million to become financially solvent, but he’s created an equally big mess by trying to clean up his last one. This week—maybe not weekend, since it’s hard to imagine a rusty Lefty sticking around—will likely show what everyone thinks of Phil taking the money and running.
Is This Rory McIlroy’s Time?
Schuster: I’m honestly sorry to be giving words to this section at all, not because I don’t think Rory will be in the hunt this weekend (exactly the opposite!), but because Rory’s success at major championships these days feels like a reverse-Rumpelstiltskin: Talk about him too much and he disappears.
McIlroy has been exceptional in majors throughout his career. Even in the eight years since his last major win, the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, he’s had 15 top-10 finishes, including seven top-fives. He’s consistently a betting favorite going in, and fans place massive expectations on him—especially going into the Masters each year, the tournament that would complete his career slam. Yet, while all those high finishes look great on paper, they don’t mean he’s really contended in each of those tournaments: McIlroy has become a herald of back-door top-10s, storming through the field on Sundays to get close but never quite close enough.
This week, though, has a different feel. Yes, I’m aware many have said that about Rory before a tournament over the past near-decade only to come out with the same result. But McIlroy is fresh off a win in the RBC Canadian Open, in which he beat out the likes of reigning PGA champion Justin Thomas, Tony Finau, and Justin Rose. And it seems like he has a point to prove—he was one of the first golfers to publicly criticize Phil for his LIV associations, and he’s become almost a roast master general since, making many comments shading LIV players and organizers (especially Greg Norman).
Whether this will all translate into a win in Brookline remains to be seen. But when Rory is on a mission, I would never dare to count him out.
Can Justin Thomas Keep It Going?
Nelson: JT has been on a hell of a roll lately, finishing third at the RBC Canadian Open last week just a couple of events after outlasting a stacked field to win the PGA Championship in Tulsa. Even in a losing effort this past weekend, Thomas shot a scorching Sunday 64 to make things uncomfortable for McIlroy, and he appears to be firing on all cylinders. Bright, funny, and articulate, Thomas is just the sort of presence the PGA Tour needs in its modified moment of crisis. Winning back-to-back majors is a rare feat, and one that would rock the golf-world Richter scale under the circumstances. He’s the second betting favorite after McIlroy, and in a way holds the whole golf world in his eerily sensitive hands.
Given his current form, there seems little chance that Thomas doesn’t at least perform well this week. The post-a-number savvy he demonstrated at Southern Hills suggests an accruing understanding of the chess-like elements of major championship golf, perhaps imparted to him by his mentor and genuine buddy Tiger Woods. Win or lose, Thomas has been incontrovertibly cast as one of the major defenders of PGA Tour. A triumph this week would only multiply that platform exponentially. Can you imagine a Sunday shoot-out between him and his former Ryder Cup teammate turned apostate Dustin Johnson? I’m NOT hyperventilating! I just have allergies.
What’s Going on With Brooks Koepka?
Dollinger: It’s been three years since Brooks Koepka won a major and more than a year since he won on Tour at all. Despite being a two-time U.S. Open champ, he’s a long shot (+4400 on FanDuel) to win a third this week. Yet a gritty effort at Brookline could go a long way to restoring Koepka’s major momentum. And if you zoom out just a bit, Koepka’s chances look stronger than his oversized arms in his extra medium polo:
Brooks Koepka has finished in the top-five in each of his last 4 U.S. Open starts (Win-Win-2nd-DNP-T4).— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) June 13, 2022
The last player with a longer streak was Ben Hogan, with 5 in a row (1948-1953).
Brooks Koepka has lost to four golfers total in his last four U.S. Opens. He's beaten or tied 616 of 620 competitors (99.4%). Lol— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) June 13, 2022
OK, so maybe having Ludacris perform at his wedding won’t help Koepka become just the 20th player ever to win five majors. Then again, maybe that’s why Ernie Els never got one for the thumb. Just saying.
Koepka has famously stated—and shown—that he can really only get “up” for the majors, but he’s been consistently down of late. He finished T55 at May’s PGA Championship and missed the cut at the Masters for the second straight year. He’s been battling various injuries for a long time and had to withdraw from the AT&T Byron Nelson Open earlier this year. If his body and his game aren’t back to 100 percent, it’s tough to imagine him bouncing back this week.
If he falters again, it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts. His brother Chase has already made the jump to the LIV Tour, and you have to imagine Brooks’s name is atop the Saudis’ wish list. If the precedent is set that LIV players can still play in majors, then maybe the guy who doesn’t like playing in all of the other tournaments can have his cake and get paid nine figures to eat it too?
Or maybe he’ll stick around anyways. After all, it’s hard to imagine Koepka following in the footsteps of DeChambeau, his archrival. And judging by his comments Tuesday, he either has no interest in the LIV Tour or at least has no interest in talking about it until he formally secures the bag:
"Y'all are throwing a black cloud over the U.S. Open, and I think that sucks."— TSN (@TSN_Sports) June 14, 2022
Brooks Koepka was getting a little annoyed with all the questions about the LIV Golf Series. pic.twitter.com/efRtTldE0D
What Does Tiger’s Absence Mean This Week?
Dollinger: Woods withdrew from the U.S. Open about a week ago, citing the need to rest his right leg ahead of the historic 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews. While it’s disappointing news for golf fans, it’s understandable after watching him limp around Southern Hills in May before withdrawing ahead of the final round.
But while Tiger is getting extra rest this week, there’s no competition for the spotlight, and a lot of empty space to fill in the media tent. Everyone is talking about LIV. Everyone is talking about Phil. There’s no Tiger comeback story to distract anyone, so the man who has craved the spotlight his entire career is finally getting the full strength of its power—only at the lowest moment of his professional career.
Maybe it’s just a funny coincidence. Maybe it’s a little gamesmanship. Maybe it’s the icing on the cake for Woods as he watches his longtime nemesis self-destruct from a safe distance. Either way, there’s no denying Tiger’s absence will be felt this week. Particularly by Phil.
Who Will Win?
Schuster: Will Zalatoris. I’m choosing to believe that this is the weekend Willy Z gets his putting together and does the damn thing. (Please don’t @ me when he starts missing 3-footers.)
Dollinger: Scottie Scheffler. It’s pretty easy to overlook the low-key Scheffler in general. And especially so on the heels of Rory outdueling JT and the LIV Tour exploding in front of our eyes. But here’s a quick refresher: Scheffler is the no. 1 player in the world. He’s won four times in the last four months, including the Masters. He’s made 12 of 13 cuts this year. And he shot a final-round 66 at the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday, proving the iron is still hot. As a straight driver with a crisp short game, he should thrive on the Country Club’s layout. And with everyone else looking elsewhere, he somehow enters the week with no pressure despite being golf’s king of the mountain.
Nelson: Justin Rose. I want to pick Rory, but it will only jinx him. Plus a stern putting test of the sort posed by Brookline is likely to expose the one Achilles heel in his game over the course of four days. So I’ll go with a real long shot: Justin Rose tied for fourth last week at the Canadian Open, including a finishing-round 60 that really could have been 58. The 41-year-old has been in good form of late and has done it before, winning the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. I like his steady nerves and shotmaking to have him in contention late on Sunday.