Steve Elling details the ups and downs – but mostly downs – of the American’s runner-up history at the US national championship, which is set for this week at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina.
Six degrees of desolation for Phil Mickelson at the US Open
The catalogue of Phil Mickelson’s attempts to win the US Open reads more like a forensic exhumation than an athletic examination, a series that has been marked by Mickelsonic booms and busts, memorable heroics by others and some of the game’s cruellest caprices.
With the US national championship set for this week at Pinehurst Resort, where Mickelson’s miseries began 15 years ago, we chronologically recast Lefty’s record-smashing six runner-up finishes at the event, while ranking them in order of perceived pain and suffering.
Payne and suffering begins
1999 – Pinehurst Resort No 2, Pinehurst Village, North Carolina
Leaderboard: Payne Stewart 68-69-72-70 = 279; Phil Mickelson 67-70-73-70 = 280
The set-up With wife Amy resting in San Diego and ready to deliver the couple’s first child at any moment, Mickelson played the weekend at Pinehurst with a beeper in his bag and pledged to withdraw if he received the fateful phone call from home. Still seeking his first major-championship win, he trailed two-time major winner Payne Stewart by a shot entering the final round on a wet, misty day in North Carolina.
The letdown In one of the most thrilling finishes of the past three decades – multiple major winners Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh were also in the mix – it was Mickelson who held the outright lead with three holes to play. But in an incredible turn of momentum, Stewart saved par on the 16th by holing a 25-footer that broke in two directions. A seemingly rattled Mickelson missed a par effort from eight feet to level the score.
Both players hit perfect shots to inside eight feet on the 17th, but only Stewart converted, taking a one-shot lead. On the 72nd green, faced with a 15-footer for par to win, Stewart rammed home the putt and struck a spontaneous pose that was commemorated in a statue that now stands behind the green. Five months later, Stewart died in a plane crash.
Cringe factor Fourth-most painful among the six. His fate in another man’s hands, Mickelson stood at the back of the green as his playing partner stood over the title-winning putt on the 18th, somehow forcing a smile as he watched the coup de grace being delivered. Nobody knew just how familiar that Open countenance would become as Mickelson tried, and failed, in the ensuing years.
Tailing and trailing Tiger
2001 – Bethpage State Park Black Course, Farmingdale, New York
Leaderboard: Tiger Woods 67-68-70-72 = 277; Phil Mickelson 70-73-67-70 = 280
The set-up With Tiger Woods undoubtedly at the peak of his powers, Mickelson began the final round five shots behind the world No 1, who was nearly unbeatable when staking himself to the 54-hole lead.
The letdown With Woods playing cautiously one group behind him, Mickelson made a move and got the gallery on his side. He birdied the 11th and 13th holes and pulled within two shots, but with Woods on cruise control and refusing to wobble, bogeys at Nos 16 and 17 ended Mickelson’s faint chances.
Cringe factor Least painful of the six runners-up results. Given that Woods won in wire-to-wire fashion, few accusatory fingers were pointed at Mickelson, who never held the lead on Sunday. Mickelson bested Woods by two shots on the day, an achievement in itself.
“I could feel the electricity in the air,” Mickelson said. “I could feel the excitement stirring, and I could feel as though I had a really good shot at it.” Sure enough, similar words would be offered repeatedly at future US Opens.
Goose is cooked
2004 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, New York
Leaderboard: Retief Goosen 70-66-69-71 = 276; Phil Mickelson 68-66-73-71 = 278
The set-up Mickelson began the day two shots behind Retief Goosen, already a US Open winner, who put on a magical performance on Shinnecock’s burned-out greens, which by Sunday, had actually died on certain holes.
The letdown On a difficult day for scoring, Mickelson took the outright lead with back-to-back birdies on Nos 15 and 16 as Goosen watched from one group behind him. In a turn of fate that made his 2006 disaster at Winged Foot seem slow by comparison, Mickelson lost the tournament in a matter of seconds.
After finding the bunker on the tricky 17th, Mickelson blasted out to about five feet and three-putted the icy fast green for a double-bogey. Goosen, on the other hand, one-putted 12 times on Sunday. “I really did think that after I birdied 16 that it was going to be my day, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Mickelson said.
Cringe factor Third-worst among the six. After staging such a memorable comeback in the final holes, watching Mickelson twice slap short putts past the cup on the 71st green was jaw-dropping. After four hours of grinding, it ended in a comparative blink. “I really thought that this was going to be the day,” Mickelson said. It was becoming a personal refrain.
‘I am such an idiot’
2006 – Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, New York
Leaderboard: Geoff Ogilvy 71-70-72-72 = 285; Phil Mickelson 70-72-74-70 = 286
The set-up With 71 holes in the books, all Mickelson needed was a par on the last to secure the Open title. He was at the apex of his career. He had won the preceding two majors and was clearly poised to make history. Then he pulled a driver out of his bag.
The letdown Struggling off the tee all day, Mickelson carved a horrid tee shot on the 18th into a corporate tent, then tried a high-risk shot through the trees in an attempt to save par.
A reckless recovery shot caromed off a tree and instead of winning outright – or at minimum, participating in a Monday play-off had he salvaged a bogey – Mickelson went home hanging his head and beating himself up. Of all his mistakes at majors over the years, his double-bogey decision-making on the 72nd at Winged Foot stands as the most scrutinised. He was inconsolable afterward. “I am such an idiot,” he said. No one argued the point.
Cringe factor Second-worst among the six. With his fourth runner-up finish in the US Open, Mickelson tied the legendary Sam Snead for futility. The enduring memory of the aftermath came when TV cameras spied Mickelson seated beside wife Amy in the scoring centre, shoulders slumped and apparently in shock.
Another ‘Black’ eye
2009 – Bethpage State Park Black Course, Farmingdale, New York
Leaderboard: Lucas Glover 69-64-70-73 = 276; Phil Mickelson 69-70-69-70 = 278
The set-up Mickelson began the final round of the rain-plagued event six shots behind Lucas Glover – a daunting obstacle at any US Open venue, much less at the punitive Bethpage Black – so few held out hope that he would contend. Then he nearly stole the show.
The letdown With an incredible rally in front of vocal New York fans that have always adored him, Mickelson charged into a share of the lead with a 35-footer for birdie on the difficult 12th hole and an eagle at the 13th, which generated perhaps the loudest roar of the week. Yet, when he needed it most, he three-putted from the fringe at the 15th, missed an eight-footer to salvage par on the 17th and failed to birdie the easy 18th to finish two behind the steadier Glover.
Cringe factor Fifth-worst among six. Given that Mickelson’s wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled for surgery a few days later, his performance was largely characterised as Herculean, though it nonetheless broke Snead’s record of four runners-up finishes in the event.
Meltdown at Merion
2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pennsylvania
Leaderboard: Justin Rose 71-69-71-70 = 281; Phil Mickelson 67-72-70-74 = 283
The set-up In suburban Philadelphia, Mickelson entered the final round with at least a share of the lead for only the second time at a US Open.
The letdown It was not just that Mickelson all but handed the trophy to Justin Rose, it was the manner in which it happened. One of the supreme wedge players in the game’s history, Mickelson hit poor approach shots with a wedge at Nos 13 and 15, leading to crucial bogeys after holding the outright lead on the back nine. All this after shaking off two sloppy double-bogeys on the front nine, too. Mickelson then missed an eight-foot birdie putt on the 16th that would have claimed a share of the lead. Worse, the final round fell on his 43rd birthday. “I felt this was as good as opportunity as you could ask for,” he said. “It really hurts.”
Cringe factor Ranks first and worst, by his own admission. Indeed, additional context makes the defeat even harder to stomach, because a month later, Mickelson won the British Open with a frenetic, back-nine rally. He needs only to win a US Open to complete the career grand slam.
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