The waste was most conspicuous in the dying moments of the U.S. Open. First, Phil Mickelson somehow stabbed a 18-inch putt seven feet by the 15th hole and made a double bogey. Then Tiger Woods gunned an eight-footer four feet past and three-putted the 72nd for a bogey. Compared to the way Lee Janzen and Payne Stewart squeezed the most out of their rounds for four straight days, such squandering of strokes was almost offensive, and made one wonder: Is it possible that America's two winningest twentysomethings lack the stuff to win the Open?
Although Mickelson finished in a respectable tie for 10th, and Woods was 18th, their journeys around Olympic made clear that they're still stumped by golf's ultimate examination. Their play was occasionally brilliant, yet all too often mistake-prone. As the U.S. Open has asserted for a century, the trophy goes to the player who hits the fewest bad shots, not to the golfer who hits the most good ones.
In the immediate aftermath last week, that tenet didn't penetrate the private San Francisco fogs both players seemed lost in. Mickelson said that the thick rough around the greens didn't fairly test short games, but his logic was faulty. He led the field with only 111 putts after hitting just 35 of 72 greens in regulation, which made him 51st in that category among the 60 players who made the cut. Without his short game to save him from loose full shots, Mickelson would have finished far down the list. "I don't know how to sum it up," he finally admitted.
Woods was also grasping. "I hit a lot of lips," he said, explaining why he ranked last in putting. He was right, but his short putts were often hit so hard that the ball would drop only if it hit the heart of the hole. Both of his four-putts were the result of power-lipped misses. He also left himself longer comebackers on several other misses from short range. As for his ball striking, Woods said, "I hit a lot of good shots that didn't end up correctly." That tells us that Tiger is still learning the difference between a well-struck shot and a well-conceived one. That was what Johnny Miller had in mind when he told television viewers that Woods's iron game must improve dramatically if he intends to compare himself to Jack Nicklaus.
Why pick on Mickelson and Woods? What about two other young phenoms, David Duval and Justin Leonard? Duval, who tied for seventh, seems to have marshaled his power enough to have fewer ups and downs in the majors than his long-hitting counterparts. Leonard, on the other hand, is a grinder through and through, and even though his 40th-place finish was consistent with his three previous Open performances, he still seems custom-built to win the championship. He simply played poorly last week. It's a given among his peers that Leonard always gets the most out of what he has.
The same cannot be said of Mickelson and Woods, at least not in the Open. The problem stems from the fact that they possess the kind of power and touch that allow for more options, and more temptations. "In the Open it's almost better to be a plodder," says Loren Roberts, a member of that clan. "Being able to hit amazing shots makes you try things you shouldn't in the Open."
When Woods last Friday hit a huge drive on the impossible 17th and followed with a towering seven-iron to eight feet and made birdie, then began the third round with a 373-yard drive and a wedge approach to the 533-yard 1st hole, he was sowing seeds for imprudent decisions down the line. In the Open, a player must submit, which is a difficult concept for a young virtuoso to accept.
The feeling here is that Mickelson and Woods will, eventually, come to this conclusion. Mickelson is 28, Woods 22, and they have many U.S. Opens ahead of them. Since 1980, almost half the Open winners have been 35 or older. The learning curve is long. Nicklaus struggled in the Open more than in any other major, yet he won four.
When the fog lifts, Mickelson and Woods will say that Olympic made them better players, maybe even good enough to stop wasting shots, which is when one of them will win the Open.