Saturday at the U.S. Open was a circus. If you were a player or the USGA, it was probably stressful and infuriating. If you were an observer, it was incredible entertainment.
The third round started with skepticism about just how much drama laid ahead. A host of the stars that this championship promoted at the start of the week missed the cut. Dustin Johnson was four shots clear of the next-closest chaser and had shown no signs of really letting this become a game. Watching DJ play golf can be exhilarating, but it just felt like we were headed for a rather drama-free sluggish weekend.
Then Phil Mickelson lost his mind, the USGA did USGA things, the scoreboard became a mess, and the players reacted in kind. It’s unfortunate for those parties involved, but it was an incredible those watching. Take a breath, let’s dive into some of the chaos of the day.
Somehow Phil Mickelson, even when’s not contending, always manages to become a major part of the story at the U.S. Open. The way he took over Saturday was definitely the oddest of a career that’s now full of almost 30 years of oddities. It was mind-boggling in the moment.
A remarkable sequence on Hole 13, where Phil Mickelson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball and ended up making a 10 on the hole. pic.twitter.com/kx6ieYiOGR— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 16, 2018
What the hell is going on? Why did Phil just do that? John Daly did something comparable at Pinehurst many years ago, but this was Phil Mickelson in the middle of a damn U.S. Open round. But we were just getting started...
After performing this inexplicable move on the 13th green, Phil spent the rest of his round laughing his ass off with playing partner Andrew “Beef” Johnston. It prompted you to reasonably wonder if he had lost his mind. Or he had been slipped some sort of hallucinogens at the turn. It was so odd and off-putting and delightful all at the same time.
The fallout reminded me a bit of Saturday at the Masters in 2013, when the morning was engulfed by whether or not Tiger Woods should be disqualified for an improper penalty drop. The offense here was obviously much different, but a debate ensued about whether Phil had just committed a serious breach of rule 1-2 on influencing a moving ball. His fellow players questioned whether he should be DQd. Media, of course, jumped in the fray. Fans, officials, everyone on the grounds started mumbling about whether Phil was done.
Setting aside the eventual ruling to not disqualify Phil, this moment of uncertainty and debate just ignited the entire tournament in a way that didn’t feel possible at the start of the day.
After a couple hours of Phil bashing, he emerged from scoring basically with a shoulder shrug and wondering what everyone was worked up about. At one point when he was asked about disrespect and the integrity of the game, he used the line you often do when in an argument you’re not willing to concede to a partner. When is an apology not an apology? When you say “I’m sorry you took it that way.”
Phil threw that out there and also admitted to this being a deliberate case of using the rules to his advantage. He even wondered if he should have done it at other times over years, including at Augusta on the 15th hole. Phil always entertains when talking to the media — he may anger you, or make you laugh — but it’s not boring. There was no contrition on his part and he was actually quite confused about why you were so upset about him pulling a move that, uh, really doesn’t seem like it should be a part of golf.
More rules drama
The press was out for blood, even well after the sun went down, pushing the USGA chief rules administrator on how Phil had not committed a serious breach resulting in a DQ. The USGA does appear to have applied the rules appropriately, but on its face, it still seems like a slippery slope and horrible precedent. Are players just going to start doing this with regularity? Like the DJ ruling at Oakmont, it feels like there will be fallout down the line in the rulebook.
A “lost course”
Playing one group behind Phil was Zach Johnson, who was the first wave of another tide of drama coming late in the day. I watched Johnson blow into scoring looking pissed off, and he went on the air a few moments later and explicitly stated that the USGA had blown it again at Shinnecock Hills. ZJ said they’d “lost the course” and that the setup had gone “over the edge,” among other things.
That’s, uh, not something you want to hear, especially as the leaders and last groups on the course were just teeing off and had a good four hours ahead of them with the wind and sun only making things more difficult.
It became clear that ZJ was onto something and would be just the first in a line of players ripping the USGA setup. The scores started to spell it out, too as everyone who was on the first page of the leaderboard on Friday night started to work on rounds in the high 70s and even 80s.
Rowdiness outside the ropes
The crowds were well hydrated and there was what felt like a contest to shout the dumbest thing possible and one-up the other idiot across the fairway. All golf crowds shout dumb stuff, but it was an extremely vocal affair. I’m not sure it added anything to the championship other than to make the whole day feel more like a circus.
Crowd on 16 chanting U-S-A, U-S-A as Poulter’s ball rolls off the front.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) June 16, 2018
Rickie Fowler shot 84!
Don’t let Phil and the setup drama distract you from the fact that The Ricktator posted the high round of the day, an astronomical 84. Rick was a favorite this week to get his first major. He had a later tee time on Saturday and was in position should DJ come back to the field. DJ did his part, but no one got ejected harder by the conditions than Rickie. 84!
Henrik Stenson let it fly
The Iceman just let the f-bombs rip, unknowingly, on Sky Sports and it all felt like just the right day for it to happen.
“Henrik we are live, please don’t swear again” pic.twitter.com/uutpR43JG0— James Savage (@JamesSavageNCG) June 16, 2018
Dustin Johnson opens it up
The world No. 1 really looked uncatchable on Friday night. Implosions happen at the U.S. Open, but it doesn’t come from the player with his talent and his current form. DJ caught the teeth of the awful setup, but still watching him go out in 41 was almost as puzzling as Phil’s move on the 13th green. It made no sense and his lead was gone by the turn.
DJ said he didn’t feel like he played badly, which is an odd thing to say after blowing a four-shot lead. Johnson righted the ship, slightly, on the tougher back nine to finish with a 77 and somehow get back to a share of the lead with ... who?
The leaderboard gets flipped
Golf is an outdoor game and we’re used to seeing different waves in these championships get some different scoring conditions. Saturday, however, was too extreme and really doesn’t seem appropriate. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau posted 4-under 66s in the morning, sat back, and watched the entire leaderboard crumble down to their number playing a much, much different golf course.
You can’t control the weather in golf and conditions change, but this seemed like it could have been avoided with a better setup. They did nothing wrong but it doesn’t feel proper, to put it bluntly, for Berger and Finau to have the final tee time on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
No player has ever been outside the top-35 after the second round and won a major championship. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau were both tied for 45th entering Saturday.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) June 17, 2018
All those who thought it “unfair” the TV found DJs ball earlier in the week. Do they think it “unfair” he has play in entirely different conditions from Berger and Finau - all because he played so well first 2 days??— Michael Clayton (@MichaelClayto15) June 16, 2018
Mike Davis fell on the sword ... again
The setup controversy resulted in yet another late night media appearance for USGA CEO Mike Davis, as well as John Bodenhamer, the chief rules guy that oversaw the Phil penalty. Davis admitted it was “too tough” and a “tale of two different golf courses.”
This has happened now in three of the last four years in embarrassing fashion. It seemed impossible for the USGA to push things close to the edge after the all-out disaster the last time the event was held at Shinnecock in 2004. They were going to be extra careful nothing approaching that — the low-point and most inexcusable of all these setup embarrassments — happened this time too. Davis cited the pin placements at the 13th and 15th holes specifically, along with general comments about how disappointed they were with not presenting it the way they hoped.
Just surreal watching this with Shinnecock in 2018 after what happened in 2004. https://t.co/6N8StJPWwM— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) June 16, 2018
It may not be 2004, or as bad as 2004, but it’s a huge gaffe in a year when and at a place where it absolutely could not happen. The players reactions turned ugly...
The pros vs. the USGA ... again
The USGA-player relationship is fraught with tension. The pros come to this week on edge, looking for every little thing to pounce on with the USGA. It’s really the only tournament they play under the control of the organization all season. They’ve been burned in the past and the bar is always high. When something happens, they lash out and we got a lot of it on Twitter and TV Saturday night:
Is that an apology ?— Ian Poulter (@IanJamesPoulter) June 17, 2018
Just grow a set of balls and say we £€¥#ed it up again...
You don’t get mulligan’s in business at this level. how can this team keep doing this without consequences. https://t.co/INvUmT6M6P
Painful finish with a 7 at the last that ruins a pretty decent day. Regardless, it was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course.A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course— Rafa Cabrera Bello (@RCabreraBello) June 16, 2018
Apparently the Blue Bloods of the @USGA do. I refuse to watch it because I know what the outcome will be. Mike Davis and his crew could ruin Christmas. #amateurhacks #giveusourgameback https://t.co/n3GgOJl02C— William McGirt (@WilliamMcGirt) June 16, 2018
That’s just a sampling of some of the harshest words, but let’s just say Zach Johnson was not alone by the end of the day.
There was, uh, also some golf played. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the comments and moments that added to the day. But the actual golf shots were lost in a day that was consumed by Phil and more course setup problems that will follow the USGA again for years. They couldn’t afford it, and it happened. They claim they can get enough water on it and slow it down overnight but there are some doubts about that. Whatever happens, it’s hard to envision we’ll get a final round as entertaining, wild, and unpredictable as Saturday was at Shinnecock Hills.