SAN FRANCISCO — What could overshadow a grouping of the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 ranked players in the world at the U.S. Open?
Tiger, Phil and Bubba.
Arguably the three most popular heavyweights in American golf – Woods, Mickelson and Watson – are set to play the first two rounds together at The Olympic Club. It would be a great time to watch anyone else at Olympic, since the galleries swarming this big three will be overwhelming.
“Having Tiger and Phil and Bubba in the same group on the opposite side of the draw is going to be huge,” said defending U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, the middle pillar in the 1-2-3 pairing with Brits Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. “If I was a golf fan I’d want to watch that group, because I’m sure you’ll see some fireworks.”
The best way to see those fireworks might be anywhere but outside the ropes at Olympic. The USGA is trying to capitalize on its star-studded power by offering 90 minutes of exclusive morning coverage on usopen.com and its mobile applications before the live coverage starts on ESPN at noon.
“It’s going to be like Sunday at the Masters,” Watson said of the atmosphere.
You won’t get any arguments about the growing trend of marquee pairings from the principles involved. Certainly not Mickelson, who throttled Woods in their last head-to-head matchup in February on Sunday at Pebble Beach.
“It’s fabulous,” Mickelson said. “I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it’s time to tee off on Thursday I’ll be ready to play. One of the issues I’ve had this year I’ve been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won’t be this week.”
The reigning Masters Tournament champion agrees.
“Obviously you step up your game,” Watson said, “The atmosphere is different, the atmosphere starts out Thursday with big crowds, I’m guessing we’re going to have big crowds. You’re stepping up there in a different situation. Your mental focus, your preparation is different. Everything is heightened a little bit. Hopefully we step up our game. Hopefully I step up my game.”
While McIlroy challenges major-deprived stars Donald and Westwood in the battle for the No. 1 ranking, most eyes will remain focused on Woods, Mickelson and Watson. Each has big questions to answer this week in what is largely considered the toughest test in golf on one of the toughest courses in America.
Can Woods end a four-year major drought and resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus?
Can Mickelson shed the bridesmaid label and finally win the national championship he covets?
Can Watson shake off the rust of his fatherhood sabbatical and claim the second leg of the Grand Slam on Father’s Day?
Woods, as usual, is under the klieg lights more than anyone else. He won at Bay Hill in March, raising expectations before the Masters only to post his worst finish as a pro at Augusta National.
He won again in impressive fashion with a Sunday rally in his last start at the Memorial, tying Nicklaus’ 73 career wins in Jack’s event. Will that translate into something better at Olympic? Will a major win complete his comeback and end all the conversation about whether or not Woods is “back?”
“I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet’ or ‘When will you get to 19?’ ” Woods said. “It’s always something with you guys. I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through and to professional golf, it hasn’t changed.”
Woods tied for 18th at Olympic in 1998, directly in the middle of his first major swing overhaul.
“I was frustrated,” he said of that experience. “I was right in the middle of the changing of my game. And it was just a frustrating time going through that and playing this venue during that time was not easy.”
Now he seems to be emerging from his third swing change. Is he far enough along to win this time? Wood believes his win at Muirfield Village was a better indicator than his victory at Bay Hill.
“I had those shots and I was doing it the correct way,” he said of his game. “And I had compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun.”
Mickelson left the Memorial after shooting an opening 79, citing “mental fatigue” while covertly making a statement of dissatisfaction with the PGA Tour’s lax cell phone policies. But he took the extra time to prepare a gameplan for Olympic that he believes will be “competitive.” He tied for 10th at Olympic in 1998, but has had five runner-up finishes in the intervening 13 U.S. Opens.
“If you look at my game from 20,000 feet, you’d say, well, that’s probably not the best setup for the way he likes to play,” Mickelson said of the penal USGA conditions. “And yet five times I’ve had opportunities, I’ve come close. Could have, should have won a few of those. And it gives me the belief that I can compete and be in contention on Sunday in this tournament.”
Then there’s Watson, who became an international golf sensation with his fearless shot-making down the stretch at Augusta and his sensational shot from the trees in the playoff that won the green jacket.
Yet after an initial media blitz, Watson retreated from the spotlight and spent time getting acquainted with his newly adopted son. He’s played only twice since the Masters and just once since April, missing the cut at the Memorial.
“It’s been a tough road trying to get back to golf, trying to get back to focusing on golf,” he said. “Now after missing a cut a couple of weeks ago, I got mad enough and started practicing.”
Is Watson’s game ready to handle the extreme pressure that the U.S. Open exerts on it – especially at the center of the storm with Tiger and Phil?
“I’m ready,” he said. “This golf course is going to be so tough, it doesn’t matter if you’re ready. It can make you look silly if it wants to.”
Playing in the spotlight with the two greatest American golfers of the past two decades – with a combined 113 wins and 18 majors between them – is not the place to look silly.
“These are the people I grew up watching in high school,” Watson said. “Now getting to play with them. I didn’t get to be around the older guys. But these are two legends of the game. One is probably No. 1 of all time and one is probably top five for sure.”
There will be more than 40,000 flies on the wall watching intently. The only thing they won’t be missing is the small-talk going on between them – even with the famously chatting Watson on board.
“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” Woods said. “This is a major championship. We’ve got work to do. … This is the tournament that I think the guys least conversate.”
It will give everyone else something to talk about.