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6:50PM

No Spieth or Thomas, but the Tour restarts with the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — No Jordan Spieth. No Justin Thomas. No real separation from the end of the last schedule — wasn’t that 10 minutes ago? — to the start of the next, which was Thursday. No problem for the PGA Tour?

Well...

Yes, the Safeway Open is here, smack in the middle of wine country, and so is one player everybody from Torrey Pines (where he grew up playing) to Turnberry knows, Phil Mickelson; a couple others who most know, two-time major winner Zach Johnson and defending champ Brendan Steele; and a great many the Tour hopes we’ll come to know.

Among the NFL and college football games, the baseball playoffs and the beginning of the NHL season — good lord, did the Sharks really play the Philly Flyers on Wednesday night? — perhaps you didn’t notice.

But that’s not your problem, that’s golf’s.

Golf follows the sun, and unlike the past two years, there’s a great deal of that and 80-degree temperatures at Silverado Country Club for the Safeway. Golf no longer follows the calendar.

We know it’s a spring and summer sport (in some minds, the Tour starts with the Masters in April and concludes with the PGA Championship in August). But the guys who haven’t picked up the big trophies and checks want to play all the time. And the PGA Tour wants to keep them playing.

So a little sleight of hand is required. Instead of making the fall events, the ones after the Tour Championship, seem like add-ons, the Tour wants us to believe that the year starts in October, right now, and not in January. OK, but it still hasn’t persuaded most of the big guns.

Golf and tennis, other than the top events such as the Masters, Wimbledon and so on, require individual stars. If you’re trying to get attention against the Raiders or 49ers, you need a Spieth. Or a Rory McIlroy (who played this tournament two years ago when it was the Frys Open). Or a Brooks Koepka. Everyone on Tour is an excellent golfer or he wouldn’t be on Tour. Only a few are excellent box-office attractions.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling stories. Maverick McNealy, the best amateur in America, the Stanford grad who said he wouldn’t turn pro, is playing his first tournament as a pro at the Safeway (he shot 68). Sang-Moon Bae won this tournament in 2014 as the Frys and then had to spend two years in the Korean military (he shot 73). Chris Stroud is among the leaders of hurricane recovery efforts in his hometown, Houston (he shot 76).

It’s just that as in music and acting, some, through success and style — usually both — are ahead of the rest, making the world stop and check them out, even the part of the world that doesn’t really care about acting or singing. Or golf.

They may be one of many — there are dozens of fine golfers on Tour — but really they’re one of a kind. Tiger Woods could fill a gallery. Still can, even though his best golf is someplace in the distance. Just the name —Tiger Woods — gets us to stop.

Long ago, when Arnold Palmer was the man, those involved in tournaments would tell the media — actually, in those days it was the press — “Write about some of those other guys so the public will find out how interesting they are.” But legends are not invented, they develop. Tiger, Arnie, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and, yes, Mickelson earned their status.

Phil had one of the later tee times Thursday, and unsaid, you understood that was for The Golf Channel, which is showing the Safeway. He finished around 5:40 p.m. PDT, near sunset in California, some viewers home from work; at prime time in New York, just before Thursday night football.

Mickelson, with a 69, may not have been the leader — Steele, Tyler Duncan and Tom Hoge were in front with 7-under 65s — but he was the anchor. The TV schedule was proof. And Phil only was here because the agency that represents him, Lagardere, is running the tournament.

Whatever works. Or in the case of Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas, whatever doesn’t. Fore!

8:34PM

Los Angeles Times: Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els reach 100 majors at the PGA

By Art Spander
Los Angeles Times

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On a rainy Tuesday in the Piedmont, two days before the last big golf tournament of the year, there was nothing finer in Carolina than to hear Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els talk about reaching the century mark — and Rory McIlroy talk about Phil and Ernie, along with some comments of his own game.

When the 99th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Quail Hollow Country Club, Mickelson and Els each will be playing in his 100th major championship, a total achieved by only 12 others and topped by the 164 of the great Jack Nicklaus.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

3:51PM

For Mickelson, a vacant spot as a golfer but not as a man

By Art Spander

ERIN, Wis. — Phil Mickelson couldn’t make it to the first round of the U.S. Open. But he made it as a father. As a family man. As someone who decided what’s important in life.

There may be a vacant spot in his resume as a golfer, but not as a man.

Phil is an easy person to admire. And, now and then, to dislike. He’s public in his displays, the opposite of the individual with whom he was so long compared, Tiger Woods.

Tiger is a CIA operative, furtive, laying low. Mickelson seems at times to be waving at us, saying, “Look at what I’m doing.”

He rarely goes unnoticed. In 1999, he had caddy Bones MacKay, the same one still in his employ, carry a beeper in the golf bag during the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, just in case Phil’s wife, Amy, gave birth to the couple’s first child. Mickelson said he would leave immediately if contacted.

Some thought it was grandstanding. But moments after Payne Stewart made the putt on the 18th green to beat Phil and win the tournament, he held Mickelson’s face between his hands and told him, “You’re going to be a father, and there's nothing greater in the world. You and Amy are going to make wonderful parents."

A day later, Amanda Stewart was born, and Phil, having sped back across the country — he then was living in Arizona — was at Amy's bedside.

Now it is 18 years later, and Thursday another U.S. Open began. But for the first time since 1993, Mickelson was not in the field. He had withdrawn hours earlier to stay in southern California, where the family now resides, to hear Amy give the commencement speech at Pine Ridge School in Carlsbad.

Life is all about timing. And decisions. Phil had this rather grandiose plan. He would attend the school ceremonies, then, with thunderstorms in the long-range forecast, immediately fly to a small airport near Erin Hills, the Open course, some 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and maybe make a delayed tee time.

He was a day late, unfortunately. On Wednesday, lightning, thunder and pounding rain eliminated practice rounds at Erin Hills. And more of the same is forecast for Friday. But Thursday was clear and hot, 84 degrees. There were no delays. There was only Mickelson’s withdrawal, opening a spot that would be filled by an alternate, Roberto Diaz of Mexico.

This brought to mind the lyrics of an old Sinatra song, Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry: “When I want rain I get sunny weather ... ” For once at a tournament, Mickelson could have used some rain, more specifically an electrical storm. But it wasn’t to be.

The subplot is that the U.S. Open is the only one of the four majors never won by Mickelson, who Friday turns 47 and is in the twilight of a career that already gained him election to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Six times he has been second, including 2006 at Winged Foot, when he blew the lead with a double bogey on the 72nd hole, and ’99, when Stewart outdueled him.

We remember the failures even more than the successes. Sam Snead never won a U.S. Open, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer failed to win a PGA. John McEnroe and Pete Sampras didn’t win a French Open. Until last fall, the overriding issue in American sport was that the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series for more than a century.

The Cubs broke the spell. Mickelson almost definitely will not. He’ll be too old to win the 2018 Open, at Shinnecock Hills, where in 2004 he was runner-up to Retief Goosen.

If this year’s Open had been at Torrey Pines in San Diego, as was the one in 2008, Phil would've been just a half-hour from Amanda’s school and been able to play. But he wasn’t. And he couldn’t. And who knows how he would have done, anyway?

Some may think of this Thursday in June for what Phil Mickelson could have done. Others will cherish what he did: join his daughter and family for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Good going, Phil.

10:22PM

Rain for Safeway Open — what else can go wrong?

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — All right. We surrender. What else can go wrong?  The Niners are awful. The Giants disintegrate. Tiger pulls a fast one. And now Mother Nature has decided to punch us around.

We wanted rain, we've been complaining about a drought that’s lasted, what, 50 years? But not this weekend. Not for the first PGA Tour event of the new season.

When it was the Frys Open, weather for the tournament the last two Octobers at Silverado Country Club was exactly as autumn is supposed to be in Northern Cal, warm and most importantly dry. Then Safeway takes over and splish, splash, we were taking a bath.

When does it rain in Napa in the fall? When does it rain in Napa ever? But stage a golf tournament, and the place turns into Scotland. More umbrellas than birdies — and there were dozens of birdies. Not enough fans, certainly, but who wants to spend a Saturday getting soaked?

Johnson Wagner spent it taking the lead in a third round of the Safeway that came to an abbreviated end with darkness encroaching, greens being squeegeed and starting times for Sunday’s scheduled final round moved up some two and a half hours to escape yet another storm.

This has turned into one of those to-be-continued episodes of not so much hand-wringing drama but towel-wringing ennui. The second round, which started on Friday, finally finished on Saturday morning, Scott Piercy playing six holes to stay in first at 15-under-par, a shot in front of Wagner and Paul Casey. It was dry. But not for long.

And so the third round began — and so did the rain and wind. Wagner, 36, a three-time winner on Tour, was on Silverado’s par-5 16th hole when play was suspended.

He was at 15-under-par after going 12-under for the first 36 holes. Piercy, also through 15, and Patton Kizzire, through 16, were 14-under. Casey was 13-under through 15 holes.

The main man for attention, not competition, Phil Mickelson, did finish 54 holes, if hardly the way he or the fans — his gallery was three times the size of anybody else’s early on — had wished. 

Phil did come in with a third straight 69, and his round included an eagle three on the par-five fifth. But he closed with a bogey-six on the 18th, also a par-five. His three-round total of 207 is a tentative eight shots out of the lead.

“I did hit a lot more good drives,” said Mickelson. “The last couple of holes, when it got wet, I got stuck. I didn’t match up my speed on the greens. They’re in perfect shape and rolling true, and you can get hot on the greens. I just haven’t done it yet.”

If he doesn’t do it Sunday, he won’t do it at all. Not at the Safeway, at least. And not for a while. His next scheduled tournament is the Career Builder Challenge in February in Palm Desert, the former Bob Hope tournament. There shouldn’t be rain there.

Wagner, along with the others, had started the week on a course that was fast, the ball flying. Then came the downpour.

“It was primed to be a firm, fast, awesome event,” said Wagner, “and Friday I hit my first shot to the green and it plugged out of the rough. I couldn't believe how much water we had had overnight.”

Those who have been taking quick showers or were hesitant to water the back lawn surely are pleased with all that water. The golfers, while recognizing California’s situation, would have preferred the rain didn’t arrive until, say, Monday.

“It was so brutal out there the last few holes,” said Wagner, “I was hanging on, hitting balls to the green ... getting up and down and making par putts and really just trying to survive and make as many pars as I could — just tick them off hole by hole, okay, two more to go, let's just get this thing in."

Which they couldn’t.

“So I think it had an effect on the other players. I don't know how anybody else played, but it was difficult.” 

And very, very wet.

9:11PM

No Tiger, but plenty of Phil — and Scott Piercy

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — So he’s not here. That’s the way it goes. Sport isn’t always what we would wish. Tiger Woods withdraws. The Giants blow a ninth-inning lead.

You can’t always get what you want, the Rolling Stones lyrics advise. Life goes on. The games go on.

Woods was one of a kind. Still is, although he hasn’t played a tournament round in more than a year. In a sport dependent on personalities, Woods was a transcendent personality.

He reached the ultimate status, known by people who don’t know much — if anything — about golf. The way Pavarotti was known by those who didn’t know anything about opera.

The method of Woods’ withdrawal, pulling out the three days after making a formal commitment, was vexing to some, irritating to others. Too much about someone among the missing? Probably, but that complaint was lodged back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the issue dealt with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

“Why are you always writing about people who aren’t playing?” wondered unhappy executives from the PGA Tour. “Write about the others, then people will want to watch them.”

As we know, that’s a false hope. It’s the Steph Currys and Buster Poseys — and Tiger Woodses — who, through success and charisma, draw the fans.

That said, the first Safeway Open is under way at Silverado Country Club. (First, because the event previously was sponsored by Frys). And in the opening round Thursday, Scott Piercy, who if he’s not Tiger also isn’t anonymous, shot a record 10-under-par 62 on the North Course.

The slogan, “These guys are good,” is an understatement. The guys who play the Tour are great — even though Silverado isn’t Oakmont or Olympic, a 62 is a 62 — and in a way Tiger’s fame helped others come to the understanding.

If the fans bought tickets because of Woods, well, they were privileged to watch somebody else, Piercy, go seven-under-par on his first 10 holes and finish with 12 birdies out of the 18 holes. Remarkable.

The Safeway is the first tournament of the Tour’s rather confusing wrap-around season. The calendar may read 2016, but the schedule says 2017. The idea is to make the autumn tournaments seem important, even if they’re lost somewhere among the baseball playoffs and college and pro football.

“Oh man,” said Piercy of his spectacular round, “I think I made more feet of putts than I did all last season.” Last season, of course, ended only two weeks ago, as if it matters. There’s a course. There’s a tournament. Play on.

Phil Mickelson has his own schedule, but fortunately the Safeway is on that schedule. This is Phil’s farewell until the Career Builder Challenge, the former Bob Hope Desert Classic, in January. Maybe there’s no time off for the Tour, but there will be for Mickelson, now 46.

He began the Safeway with consecutive bogies but came in with a three-under 69 and, although it was 5:21 p.m., with the day’s largest gallery. And why not? As Tiger has, Mickelson earned the following. Five majors and a lot of smiles gain anyone a high degree of respect and approval.

“I have to be careful energy-wise,” said Mickelson of his slow start, “because it’s been a very emotional and long year, ending and culminating with the high degree of the Ryder Cup.”

Mickelson led the British Open at Troon in July, then finished second behind Henrik Stenson. Two weeks ago, he was the de facto leader, and as a competitor he was a major factor in America’s first Ryder Cup victory since 2008. His presence at the Safeway should not go unappreciated — and it hasn’t been.

“I didn’t have much time off,” said Mickelson after the Ryder Cup triumph, ”so I’ve got to maintain energy. I got off to a slow start. I wasn’t as focused as I need to be, but I put myself in position where (Friday) I can get hot on the greens, get perfect greens in the morning, get it going, shoot six, seven, eight-under-par and get right back in it for the weekend.”

No Tiger at the Safeway, but plenty of Phil and Scott Piercy. It could be worse. Much, much worse.

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