Bubba Watson hit half-wedges of varying trajectories. Rickie Fowler strolled past, carrying his bag. Jason Day launched bombs.
This was the scene Monday morning on the practice range at Erin Hills, site of this week’s U.S. Open.
Everything seemed normal, yet something was missing. Make that two somethings.
Tiger Woods isn’t here, his secretive existence interrupted two weeks ago by news of a DUI arrest in Florida.
Phil Mickelson isn’t here. Unless he settles for FaceTime or discovers time travel, he’ll bypass his Thursday afternoon tee time to attend daughter Amanda’s high school graduation in California.
Mickelson’s expected withdrawal would mean the first major championship without both him and Woods since the 1994 Masters.
Is it any wonder you can still order tickets without going through StubHub or SeatGeek? As of Monday afternoon, the USGA website had single-day passes available for every session but Saturday.
A decent number of spectators watched players hit balls Monday morning. But there were gaps even along the fence line.
“If Tiger was here,” said Alex Matson, 21, who came with her dad, Bob, “this whole area would be packed.”
Bob Matson called himself a big Mickelson fan and did not hold out much hope that Lefty would make his 2:20 p.m. Thursday tee time without a weather delay. The graduation ceremony is scheduled to begin 10 a.m. PDT Thursday in Carlsbad.
“Nobody graduates in California at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Matson said.
Dennis Halverson, a Minnesota native who witnessed Woods playing in the Masters and PGA Championship, said: “The whole game has changed since he’s gone. So many people that were not golf fans would watch back in the day. Now it’s more hard-core fans.”
Recalling the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine, outside Minneapolis, Halverson said: “You always knew where he was. If you saw a huge crowd moving, that’s where Tiger was.”
Huge crowds also parked in front of their TVs to watch Woods and Mickelson, the game’s top two attractions for most of the last 20 years.
Contrast that with the 2017 Masters. Sergio Garcia ended his major drought with a stunning comeback that climaxed in a sudden-death playoff against former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose … and much of the country tuned out. The Masters had its lowest TV ratings in 13 years.
If the sport can’t have Woods or Mickelson, it apparently needs the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson in contention.
Woods has a history with Wisconsin. He made his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open on Aug. 29, 1996.
Andy North was playing a few groups behind Woods when North approached his second shot on the par-five sixth hole. A spectator told him that Woods had reached the green in two with a five-iron. That’s impossible, North thought before lashing a three-wood to set up a short chip for his third.
North became a fan that day and remains close to Woods, or about as close as anyone outside Woods’ tight circle can get.
North, a Wisconsin native, ESPN analyst and two-time U.S. Open champion, said if Woods were at Erin Hills, he would figure out a way to attack the U.S. Open newbie.
“I guarantee it,” North said, referencing Woods’ 2006 British Open victory at Hoylake, where he hit driver one time all week.
Woods isn’t here, though, and there has been little word on his condition since he got behind the wheel while impaired by a “mix of medications,” according to his statement. A toxicology report is pending.
“I think he’s got too much time on his hands, and he’s not in the right frame of mind,” said Peter Brohm, a fan attending his third straight U.S. Open. “It’s frustrating not to see him. You’d love to see him come back. But it will be somebody else’s time to be a superstar.”
As for Mickelson, Brohm said: “I commend him. Your kids come first in life. That’s it. Golf is a distant second.”