PINEHURST, N.C. – The story of the 2013 U.S. Open – perhaps the best story of any U.S. Open – walked into the media center Tuesday wearing charcoal pin-striped trousers, a sweat-stained white shirt and a smile that showed he knew every eye is on him.
Phil Mickelson is the fairy tale everyone is talking about, but don’t ask him to call his shot and predict the perfect ending to his unrequited love story.
“When I jump ahead, that never really works out good,” he said. “At least in the past, six times.”
The poster figure for U.S. Open heartbreak returns to the scene of his first and most poignant defeat. It was at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 where Mickelson’s one-stroke lead disappeared in the span of three finishing holes to a collective 55 feet of three Payne Stewart putts.
The stakes then were a first career major. Now he comes back with a career grand slam within reach.
“It would really mean a lot to me … to do it right here where Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens,” Mickelson said. “Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard and this would be a great place to break through and do it.”
It’s been practically a 15-year buildup that intensified in the past 12 months. Long before anybody had back surgery or another left-hander won the Masters Tournament or the FBI showed up for a post-round chat, Mickelson was THE story at Pinehurst. Ever since he walked off the course at Merion a year ago with a record sixth silver medal for runner-up, his career compass was pointed back at Pinehurst where his whole U.S. Open saga began 15 years ago on a misty Father’s Day the day before he became a parent.
The attention became even more intense a month later when Mickelson stormed home with 67 at Muirfield to win the one major we wasn’t sure he could ever claim – the British Open. He immediately set his sights on completing the career slam by getting the one major trophy that’s eluded him.
“I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time,” Mickelson said. “It shows that they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently.”
And so began a countdown to Pinehurst. The very first question Mickelson fielded in Abu Dhabi to start 2014 was, “I know it’s January and everything, but is it already tempting to look forward to June and that great chance you’ll have to get the career Grand Slam?”
Not since Tiger Woods had to wait eight months between majors trying to complete his consecutive slam at the 2001 Masters has one player at one major been the primary story for so long. Throw in Mickelson’s relative struggles to find form this season, his recent association with an insider trading investigation and the ghost of Stewart punching the air in bronze behind Pinehurst’s 18th green, and you have a perfect storm of hype.
“I don’t want to get overly excited, because the pressure of a U.S. Open and having not been in contention, that’s going to be a challenge for me,” Mickelson said. “The expectations of me looking forward to this event for almost a year now and the history that I’ve had here and how much of a great story it would be and how much it would mean to me to win here with what happened with Payne Stewart and my child and all these things, that makes it more difficult as well. I tend to do something, play better, like at Muirfield last year when nobody really expects it and I just kind of come out of nowhere.”
With the possible argument from the heirs of Sam Snead, there is no more compelling tragic figure in U.S. Open history than Mickelson. He’s been an ongoing serial saga for nearly half of the last 15 installments of the national championship. His six defeats have been as epic in scale as his five major triumphs.
In his six runner-up efforts, Sunday has been his downfall. Mickelson averages 68.5 (9-under par) in the opening rounds, 70.66 (+4) on Fridays, 70.16 (+1) on Saturdays and a crippling 71.50 (9-over) on Sundays.
Where those nine critical lost strokes on Sundays have come is even more crushing. Mickelson has played the last three holes in a collective 9-over par after playing the first 15 in a collective even.
Trying to pick out the most torturous defeat is its own challenge. Mickelson claims it was last year when he blew the 54-hole lead at Merion. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, believes 2004 at Shinnecock was the toughest to swallow. Many observers who remember the shock etched on Mickelson’s face in 2006 at Winged Foot when he was one hole from winning a third consecutive major would point to that.
You be the judge.
Last year’s loss at Merion followed a vaguely different script. He made two doubles in his first five holes that proved costly. However, after jumping back in the lead with an eagle on the short 10th, he bogeyed three of the last six holes including a head-scratcher on the 121-yard 13th that turned into a two-shot swing with Justin Rose making birdie.
Mickelson called it “heart breaking” and “probably the toughest for me.”
Before that, however, was Bethpage Black Vol. 2 in 2009. Poised to take a leave while his wife, Amy, and mother battled breast cancer, Mickelson had a share of the lead with four to play after an eagle on the 13th. But bogeys at 15 and 17 left him one behind Lucas Glover.
In 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson was leading by one on the 18th tee. He sliced a driver off a corporate tent, attempted a desperately ill-advised heroic recovery and suffered double bogey to lose by one to Geoff Ogilvy.
“I still am in shock that I did that,” he said afterward. “I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot.”
In 2004 at Shinnecock he was tied for the lead with two left before making double out of a bunker on the 17th to lose by two to Retief Goosen.
His only ho-hum second came in 2002 at Bethpage when the closest he could get to Tiger Woods was two strokes in an unlikely weekend charge.
“I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship and I believe that I’ll have more opportunities,” he said. “When I do, hopefully the experience that I’ve had in the past will allow me to handle it better in the future.”
The clock, of course, is ticking. Mickelson will turn 44 on Monday. The oldest player to win a U.S. Open was Hale Irwin at age 45 in 1990 at Medinah.
“It’s just amazing how much time has gone by to hear that this is my 24th U.S. Open?” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel that old. I guess I look it, but I don’t feel it.”
He says he won’t put pressure on himself to win it this year. But with no positive history at the next three venues – rookie sites Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017) and Oakmont (2016) – his window isn’t as wide.
“I do feel heading into this year’s U.S. Open that this golf course, this setup, and everything about Pinehurst provides me the best opportunity,” he said. “But I haven’t had the form this year to get too excited. Although I feel it coming around, I felt it last week, I saw it in the glimpses and I felt it again today.”
With all that on his shoulders and 155 potential spoilers, Mickelson will try to finish the story. Whether it’s a happy ending, or unfulfilled like Greg Norman at the Masters, remains to be seen.