ARDMORE, Pa. – Phil Mickelson owns sole possession of the lead entering the final round of the U.S. Open.
Those words cannot stand alone. (Right?) They are the precursor to tragedy, a suggestion that the bewitching hour is nearly upon us. (Aren’t they?)
We’ve been here, done this before. So many times, in fact, that following Mickelson in contention at this event is like participating in one of those old-timey whodunit murder mysteries.
There was Phil with the putter at Shinnecock. Phil with the driver at Winged Foot. Phil with the putter again at Bethpage.
In each instance, there’s one common variable. Whatever the weapon killing his chances, wherever the scene of the crime, Phil has been guilty of fantastic failures at this tournament. It’s a record that is both awesome and agonizing: He owns five career runner-up finishes, each one more tormenting than the last.
He is the Buffalo Bills of the U.S. Open.
And yet, somewhere in the pessimistic punchbowl an optimistic bubble is emerging from beneath the surface. It causes us to think, “Well, maybe this time could be different…” and “He’s learned from those past experiences…” and even “One man doesn’t deserve to be snakebitten like this so many times…”
So we accentuate the positive. We look at his scores of 67-72-70 on venerable Merion Golf Club and believe he can keep it going. We take note of his penchant for late birdies this week and think he might have another important one coming on Sunday. We play the percentages and figure the law of averages is finally on his side.
This isn’t about being a Mickelson fan.
This is about compassion.
This is about not wanting to see a man repeatedly punched below the belt after the bell has rung.
“I love being in the thick of it,” he said. “I've had opportunities in years past and it has been so fun, even though it's been heartbreaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide.
“But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open. My ball-striking is better than it's ever been. My putting is better than it has been in years. And I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it.”
There’s that optimistic bubble surfacing. It’s only part of the story, though. It’s only part of this layered tale of regret and hope.
Earlier this week, Mickelson flew home to San Diego to attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter – the same daughter born one day after his first U.S. Open runner-up, when Payne Stewart grabbed him by the cheeks and testified, “There’s nothing like being a father.” It was hardly an act of heroism. He sneaked back to Merion on his Gulfstream V, proud of Amanda and pleased with the decision he’d made.
It’s only fitting that the man who added to his Father of the Year resume will celebrate Father’s Day trying to win the one tournament that has eluded him for so long. As if the storylines were lacking, it’s also his 43rd birthday.
Call it kismet. Or serendipity. Or the perfect storm.
“It's got the makings to be something special,” he admitted, “but I still have to go out and perform and play some of my best golf.”
We can allow ourselves to look ahead, to wonder what the next 18 holes of Mickelson’s life will reap. If he keeps striping the ball the way he’s done over the first three rounds, if he keeps holing crucial par-saving putts, this could join his 2004 Masters victory as a career-defining moment.
They’ll have mock parades in Philadelphia, if not a real one, cheering a man who is as unsinkable as one of their own, celebrating the irony of his name in their city. Those famous plaques for Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan will someday be joined by one for a fellow Hall of Fame member, maybe on the 17th tee if he can replicate “one of the best shots I’ve ever hit” from the third round, or near the 18th green if he can hole another lengthy putt like he did one day earlier.
But if he doesn’t? If Mickelson suffers through another “I’m such an idiot” moment? If he ends up with a sixth career runner-up result?
There will be more heartbreak. More torment and regret. We’ll remember this one like all the others, another U.S. Open Sunday when Phil just wasn’t good enough. Another final round when the man with three green jackets and a Wanamaker Trophy doesn’t have what it takes to win his national championship. He will continue being the Buffalo Bills, ill-fated and doomed no matter the scenario.
On Saturday evening, though, as he prepared to leave Merion and spend the night trying not to think about 18 of the biggest holes of his life, Mickelson wouldn’t let himself consider such disaster.
“It would certainly mean a lot to me,” he said. “This is a tournament for years I've had opportunities, I've come close to, and it would mean a lot.”
There it is. The optimistic bubble enveloping the punchbowl. Mickelson is hoping it doesn’t burst this time.