ARDMORE, Pa. – Phil Mickelson had a chance to win the U.S. Open on Sunday and ...
Oh never mind. You know how it ends.
Perhaps it was foreshadowing when a groundhog ran across Mickelson’s path on Friday, because he keeps reliving the same U.S. Open story over and over and over and over and over and over.
Six times now, Mickelson has walked away from the event with the same pit of runner-up regret in his stomach. This time at Merion Golf Club on his 43rd birthday he was so certain it would be different, but nothing changed. Englishman Justin Rose was kissing the trophy Sunday evening after a brilliant finish while Phil received another silver medallion to stuff in a drawer at home.
“This one’s probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” he said. “Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Sunday’s script was the same as always – a little magic mixed with just enough misery to keep his desires just out of reach. Just when it seemed that a day which started with him holding a one-shot lead was getting away after painful double bogeys on Nos. 3 and 5, Mickelson pitched in for eagle from 75 yards on No. 10 to vault him back into the lead.
“I would have been happy to take birdie there, but to see that ball go in, I really thought that I was in a good position,” he said.
But then three holes later, on the easiest hole that Merion has to offer, Mickelson practically skulled a searing pitching wedge way over No. 13 green into a thick patch of rough to make his second bogey of the week on the par 3.
He made another bogey with wedge in his hand on No. 15, three-putting (though he technically hit one wedge on the green) for the bogey that dropped him out of his last share of the lead with Rose and put him in catch-up mode on three of the most difficult closing holes in major championship golf.
“Those wedge shots on 13 and 15 are the two I’ll look back on,” he said.
Too often, the troubled story of Mickelson’s U.S. Open career includes shoulda-coulda Sunday shots he’ll look back on solemnly. The putts on 16 and 17 at Pinehurst in 1999. The bogey from the bunker on 17 at Shinnecock in 2002. The infamous driver and double bogey on the 18th at Winged Foot in 2006. The missed par putts on 15 and 17 at Bethpage in 2009.
Add to the ledger those two bad wedges and the two three-putt doubles at Merion in 2013.
“This could have been a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I’d like to win, after having so many good opportunities,” Mickelson said.
You could see the stress and desire of this opportunity etched on Mickelson’s face all day. Where usually he wears a smile, Mickelson’s lips were pursed tighter and his teeth gritted more often as he watched wedges and putts that typically bow to his will drift and wobble into the wrong places.
Yet true to his Hall of Fame skill, Mickelson hung right in until the bitter, bitter end while other seasoned contenders were throwing up all over themselves.
Steve Stricker – who owns the most PGA Tour wins without a major of any player under 50 – hit one ball out of bounds and shanked another on the second hole for a triple that ended his bid as he shot 41 on the front.
Charl Schwartzel – a former Masters champion – went bogey-bogey-bogey-double-bogey on Nos. 3-7 en route to his own outward 42.
Luke Donald – the former No. 1 player in the world – beaned a young woman in the head with an errant shot on the third hole and seemed rattled thereafter as he shot himself out of it with his own front-nine 42.
But Mickelson kept grinding and waiting for the spark. Fate, however, keeps pulling the prize out of his grasp like Lucy yanking the football from beneath Charlie Brown’s feet.
This latest cruel twist stung him more than all the rest and might be the toughest to swallow.
“Very possibly, yeah,” he said. “I would say it very well could be. I think this was my best chance.”
Rose joins Payne Stewart, Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy and Lucas Glover on the trophy where Mickelson’s name could have been etched. The 32-year-old Rose did it in style, with two masterfully struck shots on the brutal 18th hole that Ben Hogan would have been proud of en route to a clinching par on a hole that nobody birdied for two consecutive days.
Rose cried after tapping in, a career-defining accomplishment he’s been stalking for 15 years since he holed out as an amateur on his first major stage at Royal Birkdale.
Mickelson’s 14 years of redundant agony at the U.S. Open didn’t bring any tears.
But his regrets keeps building.
“If I had won today, or if I ultimately win, I’ll look back at the other Opens and think that it was a positive play,” he said of his runner-ups that require a second hand to count. “If I never get the Open, then every time I think of the U.S. Open, I just think of heartbreak.”