Mark these dates down on your calendar: June 12-15, 2014. No, block ‘em out. With one of those industrial strength Sharpies usually only used to withstand a Phil Mickelson post-round autograph session.
These are the days when the most prodigious successes and failures of Mickelson’s career will converge on one stage, like the compelling final scene of some Oscar-nominated drama. There will be no scripting for the 114th U.S. Open Championship (other than the glitzy wardrobes) so we don’t know how this one will end, but we do know how it begins:
• The tournament will be contested on the crowned greens of Pinehurst No. 2, site of the lefthander’s first – and perhaps most memorable – heartbreaker at a major championship. Back in 1999, while carrying a beeper as wife Amy was due with their first child, Mickelson got pipped at the finish line by Payne Stewart, who instinctively grabbed his playing partner by the cheeks and consoled him with the words, “You’re going to be a father and there’s nothing greater in the world.”
• It will come one year after what Mickelson claims was his greatest chance to win the U.S. Open, parlaying a 54-hole lead at Merion into a record-extending sixth career runner-up finish. Phil and this tournament are like star-crossed lovers. Lengthy periods of passion interrupted by brief explosions of acrimony.
• At this tournament and each subsequent annual edition, Mickelson will have a chance to join golf’s most exclusive fivesome. The list of players who have won the career Grand Slam includes Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – and nobody else. It could become a sixsome if everything falls right for Phil at Pinehurst.
So yeah, you could say there are a couple of tantalizing storylines coming our way.
For now, we’re left to assess Mickelson’s current place in history in 19th hole debates from Muirfield to Muirfield Village. It’s been a caterpillar-to-butterfly type of metamorphosis over the past decade. Really, it wasn’t so long ago that he had that “Best Player To Have Never Won A Major” label stitched into his undergarments, the game’s ultimate backhanded compliment.
Prior to the Open Championship, he said of his title chances, “I'm hoping to put it together. Hopefully it will happen this week. But if not, I feel like it's much closer.”
Yes, that was prior to the Open – in 2003. Back then he was a forlorn failure, the major championship equivalent to Charlie Brown repeatedly getting the football pulled away before he could kick it.
In the years since, Mickelson has transformed from lovable loser to proven winner in the Big Four – or at least three of the Big Four, with the U.S. Open remaining longingly elusive. A win at Pinehurst – or any U.S. Open thereafter – would elevate his legacy to loftier heights, joining that legendary fivesome with a full trophy cabinet.
“If I'm able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that's the sign of the complete great player,” he explained after a final-round 66 clinched the claret jug. “I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me.”
Even without it, a case can be made for Mickelson tiptoeing across the boundary into the game’s top-10 players of all-time. The list easily includes the likes of Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan and Player of the career slammers, and likely shows Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, too.
From there, it can be argued whether Lefty could, should and would be ranked ahead of Sarazen or Walter Hagen or Seve Ballesteros or Lee Trevino. The difference between 10th and 11th is, as Mickelson himself earlier this year described the chasm between shooting 59 and 60, “a big barrier, a Berlin Wall barrier,” though unlike the confines of a scorecard, such ranking is open to interpretation.
What we do know is that he ranks 9th on the PGA Tour all-time victory list and tied for 14th on the major victory list in an era when Woods dominated for a dozen years and fields have grown deeper than ever.
We also know that at 43, he’ll be playing every major going forward with a nothing-to-lose attitude, which easily fits his long-standing riverboat gambler mentality on the golf course. That mentality may not be the entire explanation for why he couldn’t turn a one-stroke advantage into a U.S. Open win last month and could turn a five-stroke deficit into an Open Championship win this past weekend, but it sure helps.
Mickelson has never shied away from the spotlight, and its intrusive glare will be focused directly on him at Pinehurst next year for multiple reasons, all of which will be intertwined and interconnected on the big stage. A victory would vanquish those 15-year-old demons on that course, would vanquish all of the demons from his U.S. Open past, and would launch him into the next echelon amongst the greatest players of all-time.
It might happen. It might not. Either way, you’ll still want to block out those dates on the calendar.