Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2013

At Merion, An All Too Philmiliar Finish

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed due to Sunday’s late finish of the U.S. Open golf tournament.

To borrow a line from Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again. For all of his regular PGA Tour victories and multiple major wins, there is no tournament Phil Mickelson covets as much as the U.S. Open. It is both the national championship and arguably the first among equals of golf’s four majors. It is certainly the most rigorous test of golf on each year’s calendar, thanks to the USGA’s fierce determination to protect par at all costs. On the day he turned 43, Mickelson started the final round of this year’s Open as the only golfer under par and with a one-stroke lead. That last fact was a warning sign to those with knowledge of the game’s past. Four times over the years the USGA had brought the U.S. Open to venerable Merion Golf Club’s East Course, and not once did the 54-hole leader wind up hoisting the trophy. To the anguish of Mickelson and his many fans, the fifth Open at Merion only added to that history.

After an aggressive drive into the right hand rough, Lefty’s second shot on the opening hole left him safely on the green, some twenty feet below the hole. His birdie putt curled toward the cup, but instead of falling in it grazed the edge and spun away. A much shorter birdie try at the par-5 2nd produced an identical result. A combined margin of little more than an inch was the difference between a birdie-birdie start and two pars. Then, after playing the first three rounds without a single double bogey blemishing his score cards, Mickelson made a pair of doubles over the next three holes, sandwiched around the lone birdie of his round. With that the battle was joined, with playing partner Hunter Mahan, Australian Jason Day, and Englishman Justin Rose all vying with Mickelson for possession of the championship’s silver trophy.

By the time the Open had been reduced to its final nine, Rose was the leader by a shot. Then on the par-4 10th Mickelson gave us a classic Phil the Thrill moment. From the right hand rough, 76 yards short of the hole, Mickelson swung one of the five wedges he was carrying for the tournament and lofted the ball high into the air. It landed softly below the hole and rolled straight into the cup for an eagle 2. The shot moved Mickelson back to even par for the tournament and momentarily back into sole possession of first place.

The moment did not last, in part because down the stretch golf’s greatest short-game magician ran out of magic. He badly overcooked a wedge from the tee on the short 13th hole, and undercooked another one from the fairway on the 15th when by his own admission he quit on the shot. The first ball flew long, the second came up woefully short. Both poor swings led to bogeys; and in a round in which his putter was ice-cold he could ill afford any poor swings. Mickelson made just one putt longer than a tap-in all day, a par saver on the 14th. More than once his efforts lipped out or burned the edge of a hole. Thirty-seven putts would likely be too many to win even a $2 weekend Nassau, much less the U.S. Open; yet that is how many Mickelson needed on Sunday.

When his approach from the left rough finished short of the green at the 18th, Mickelson needed a miracle long distance chip-in to force a playoff. The assembled thousands stood and chanted his name. If adoration could will the ball into the hole there would have been more golf on Monday. But it was not be to. In the end the golfer who already held the record for second place finishes at the national championship was runner-up at a sixth Open.

The first time was in 1999, when he and Payne Stewart matched shot for shot at Pinehurst until the latter sank the winning par putt on the final green. Mickelson carried a beeper in that round, prepared to walk off the course if his expectant wife Amy went into labor. Amanda, the couple’s first child, was born the next day. This year she graduated from the eighth grade, and before losing the Open Mickelson won the Father of the Year Award by leaving Philadelphia early in the week and flying home to attend the ceremony. He flew back from California overnight on Wednesday; his private jet touching down in the pre-dawn hours Thursday morning, shortly before his early first round tee time.

Mickelson finished three strokes behind Tiger Woods in 2002, and two adrift of Retief Goosen in 2004. He was tied for the lead with four to play in 2009, but a pair of late bogeys meant Lucas Glover was that year’s winner. Then there was 2006. That was the year Lefty stood on the final tee needing a par to win and knowing that even a bogey would guarantee a playoff. What followed was an implosion of historic proportions, and a double bogey that gifted Geoff Ogilvy the championship.

This was no repeat of the meltdown at Winged Foot. On Sunday Mickelson made mistakes in his final round of 74, but that’s to be expected in the final round of every season’s toughest test. Playing partner Mahan shot 75. Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel, the twosome playing in the next to last group, posted scores of 76 and 78. This U.S. Open wasn’t lost, it was won, and deservedly so, by the 32-year old Rose. The first Englishman to win a major in 17 years, Rose held his nerve and the lead at the end with a pair of perfect approach shots on the fiendishly difficult 17th and 18th holes.

In an interview after it was all over Mickelson’s one word reaction to becoming a six-time runner-up was “heartbreak.” He added, “This is tough to swallow after coming so close. This was my best chance. This was a golf course I really liked. This was as good an opportunity as you could ask for. It really hurts.”

He understandably didn’t mention it, but there is another reason why this golf course he really liked might have represented Mickelson’s best chance to finally capture an Open. Only three players older than Lefty have won this major, and by the time next year’s tournament begins at Pinehurst he will have passed Ted Ray and Raymond Floyd so that a victory would make him the second oldest U.S. Open champion ever. The ticking clock says that for all the thrills he has provided his legion of fans over the years, part of Phil Mickelson’s legacy seems destined to be a record amount of bitter disappointment at the U.S. Open.

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