Column: Golf's stars battle not to win but to stay alive
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) — The shadows were lengthening, the crowds thinning in the early evening at the U.S. Open. Shinnecock Hills itself was changing, morphing from a tortuous test of patience into a place where birdies were not only available but plentiful.
Dustin Johnson might have been off having a cold one somewhere, his place on top of the leaderboard secure. Tiger Woods was on his yacht heading home, his place in golf no longer so secure.
And three of the biggest names in the sport were playing together on their way to the clubhouse, united in a desperate attempt not to win but to find a way to play on the weekend.
High drama on a Friday, with nothing at stake but a Saturday tee time.
Phil Mickelson managed to get one, playing the final nine in 33 to keep his slim Open hopes alive. Rory McIlroy didn't, despite shooting 31 on the same back nine where he shot 42 a day earlier.
And then there was Jordan Spieth, who could only stand by the 18th green shaking his head after an inexplicable meltdown on the final two holes meant he had no chance for a second Open title.
Four straight birdies seemed to put him in, followed by two closing bogeys that left him out.
And no explanation about what has happened to a game that only a short while ago was good enough to win three major championships and make Spieth a prohibitive favorite every time he teed it up.
A player who prides himself on being as grounded and normal as a 24-year-old millionaire superstar can be dutifully signed autographs after signing his scorecard. But for the second day in a row he walked off without answering reporters' questions, despite the urging of a USGA official to step in front of a microphone just a few feet away.
Maybe it was for the best, because there wasn't much to say about a disastrous ending for Spieth, just as it seemed he was playing his way back into contention.
Thirty holes into the Open he was 11-over-par and going nowhere. Four holes later he seemed sure of finishing within the cut line.
Then a 3-putt from 30 feet on the 17th hole and a chunked chip on the closing hole. When his 12-footer for par missed, Spieth was done.
A baffling end in a baffling year for Spieth, who can't seem to control the putter that helped him win majors and eventually rise to No. 1 in the world. He hasn't won this year and even his 64 in the final round of the Masters came when he was pretty much out of contention.
McIlroy has had his own issues, and they are just as baffling. But he had an excuse for his poor play, even if it was a suspect one.
"I think I was just blown away by the wind yesterday," said McIlroy, who grew up playing in the wind in Northern Ireland. "That was the thing. I mean, I haven't played in wind like that for quite a long time. I just felt like I couldn't hit it far enough left or right to allow for the wind."
Nothing, of course, is guaranteed in golf, something that's especially true at the U.S. Open. Shinnecock Hills was so treacherous on Thursday that players averaged 76.4 on the par-70 layout, and it wasn't until late Friday that the wind finally calmed and players began making birdies in bunches.
Still, the play of the featured morning threesome on Thursday was shocking for a trio of the best players in the world. They were a combined 25-over-par and seemed to have no idea how to deal with a slippery course that demanded as much patience as skill.
Mickelson turned out to be the lone survivor, playing his final 15 holes Friday in 3 under to squeeze in under the cut. It not only gave him a Saturday tee time but some hope that a low score posted early in his third round might get him close enough to the top of the leaderboard to contend on Sunday.
"The conditions are supposed to be calm in the morning, kind of like we're seeing," Mickelson said. "I think there's a 4-, 5-, 6-under par round there. If I can shoot that or anybody who just made the cut, I think there's potential. You just never know in this tournament. If the wind picks up, it could move them into contention for Sunday."
Wistful thinking, perhaps. Mickelson turns 48 on Saturday, a reminder that time is running out on his chances to win the one major that has eluded him in his long career. He needs every positive thought he can generate for a tournament that has caused him so much pain over the years.
Maybe that's why he was smiling while signing autographs after his round. He is, after all, playing on the weekend.
And that is one thing Spieth and McIlroy can't say.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg