Course produces worthy champion

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. --- Everybody's first choice played second fiddle again in the U.S. Open.

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Phil Mickelson reacts after making eagle on No. 13 during the final round. The fan favorite grabbed a share of the lead with the putt, but he finished in second place.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Phil Mickelson reacts after making eagle on No. 13 during the final round. The fan favorite grabbed a share of the lead with the putt, but he finished in second place.

Phil Mickelson once again teased his fans and flirted with the major title that has been most cruel to him. He shrugged off a record fifth runner-up finish in the U.S. Open, signed autographs for half an hour and went home to take care of his family.

"Certainly I'm disappointed," Mickelson said after failing to hang on to a share of the lead with two late bogeys. "But now that it's over, I've got more important things going on. Oh well."

The New York-area fans who flocked to Bethpage State Park and slogged through the mud an extra day under gray skies were jilted for a fourth time by their adopted favorite. They made no bones about who was the people's choice, chanting "Let's Go Phil!" at every green and offering grudging applause when lesser known Lucas Glover took the tournament by the throat with a birdie on the 16th hole.

This was not the story they wanted to see. That doesn't mean this was not the most worthy story. The 109th U.S. Open got the most deserving champion, and in the end provided as compelling a climax as anyone could have hoped for this week.

No sport in the world defines its competitors better than golf, and golf defines its players best in the major championships. That was never more clear than at the U.S. Open.

The sodden stage of Bethpage Black redeemed itself after a miserable week with a memorable Monday morning mulligan. For one day you could forget the rain, forget the mud, forget all the other forgettable elements of a major championship turned sour and focus on what makes the game great and the players champions.

Four players held a share of the lead Monday, and every one of them blessed the championship with their performances. Three of them left dickering over who would take home the silver medal, to which Mickelson said to Ricky Barnes, "I've got four of them; I'm good."

There was Barnes, who awoke Monday morning to headlines dubbing him "Rickety Barnes." For most of the morning he lived up to the tag. The 28-year-old emerged from minor-tour exile and threatened to run away with the tournament when he raced to 11-under par and a six-shot lead in the third round.

But on Monday morning Barnes was hard to watch. He bogeyed six of eight holes at one stretch and was all but counted out. Yet he got to the 18th green with a putt that could have tightened the collar around Glover's neck had it fallen in the cup.

"Bridesmaid isn't too bad," said Barnes, who shot 76 and tied for second. "But when you know you're right there, it's a tough one to swallow. Was I stoked with what I shot today? No. But was I happy with the last six holes? Yes. So I'll take that with me."

There was David Duval, who emerged from an eight-year funk that dropped him from among the world's best to 882nd in the rankings. Everyone assumed the inevitable when Duval opened the day with a triple bogey on the third hole after burying his tee shot in the bunker.

But Duval stoically battled back and gained a share of the lead with birdies on 14, 15 and 16 before a bogey at 17 forced him to settle for his share of second.

"I probably had a lot more fun out there on the theater of 15 through 17 and 18 than I've had on a golf course in a long time," the 2001 British Open champion said. "I was in the middle of a golf tournament trying to make birdies and I was just having a blast. ... It's very difficult to sit here and say second place was a failure.

"It is very much a success. It's not quite the success I had looked forward to this week and had hoped for and in some way expected, but success nonetheless."

There was Mickelson, the quintessential heartbreak kid of this annual battle of attrition. Playing with a heavy heart after the breast cancer diagnosis of his wife, Amy, Mickelson sunk everything he had into winning the major he most desperately wants to add to his collection.

He whipped the partisan crowds into a frenzy with a birdie-eagle combo on 12 and 13 that got him a share of the lead. But just as he has before at Pinehurst, Bethpage, Shinnecock and Winged Foot, Mickelson couldn't close the deal.

"I feel different this time," he said. "Maybe it's more in perspective for me. I don't know where to go with this because I want to win this tournament badly. ... I feel I'll have more and more chances."

Ultimately, there was Glover. The former Clemson All-American from Greenville, S.C., has been a career case study of a player with all the tools yet little to show for it. He had consistently wilted under pressure before as he tried to win regular tournaments or earn Ryder Cup points.

But when the pressure was on this week and everyone was rooting for someone else, the easygoing Glover rose to the occasion. He dropped four strokes before making his first birdie on 16 to seize control and steadily hung on when it counted.

"I'd be lying to say I wasn't nervous," Glover said. "I had the knees knocking pretty good on 16, 17 and 18. But I pulled it off and executed some pretty good golf shots."

They all leave Bethpage with something to be proud of. But even if he wasn't the people's choice, it's Glover who was appropriately defined Monday as a major champion.

"I dreamed about it as a kid and pulled it off," Glover said. "Here I stand."

He may not have been the best story, but he was inarguably the best player at Bethpage Black.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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