ARDMORE, Pa. – Years ago, back in the late ‘90s, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played a little money match between friends. The wager was, as Mickelson so often succinctly prefaces in these matches, 'enough to keep you interested, but not enough to make you uncomfortable.'
On this day, Mickelson got the best of his younger rival, forcing Woods to fork over a few greenbacks after the round. Feeling a bit smug about his win over the Masters champion, Mickelson made a photocopy of the bills, then drew smiley faces on the dead presidents of the photocopy and left it hanging in Woods' locker with a message: 'They look much happier now!'
That was their last money match between friends.
Fast forward about a decade, the two players in the midst of a United States team celebration following a successful Presidents Cup campaign. Again feeling smug, Mickelson pointed out to Woods that he owned a much better individual record at the event.
The insinuation grabbed Woods’ attention. He simply stared back at Mickelson, made a rectangular motion with his two index fingers, and replied, 'Big picture.”
Mickelson laughed recently at the recollection, knowing that his big picture – a clear image of one of the winningest golfers in the game’s history – still pales in comparison to that of Woods. There is no shame in that, of course, but it’s hard not to think about how that picture could have been altered on the heels of yet another agonizing close call at the U.S. Open.
This one came in typical Mickelsonian fashion.
The CliffsNotes for the final round read as follows: He led, then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t, then he did, then, finally and forlornly, he didn’t, leaving Justin Rose as the champion. A round that might have been canonized with a plaque in the right rough on the 10th hole, where he jarred a wedge shot from 76 yards, will instead be remembered for an early pair of boneheaded double bogeys, a wayward wedge shot on the course’s shortest hole and a late birdie bid that died before reaching the cup.
They say the final stretch of holes at Merion’s East Course is the tragedy in this three-act play, but Mickelson doesn’t need anyone else to explain tragedy to him. He extended his own dubious record for runner-up results at this event, now totaling six, each one more painful than the last.
When asked if this one would be tougher to take than the others, he replied, “Very possibly, yeah. I would say it very well could be. I think this was my best chance.”
It’s often been said that Jack Nicklaus’ most impressive record is his 18 career major titles and his second-most impressive record is his 19 career second-place finishes. Mickelson’s penchant for coming so close, so many times at his national championship doesn’t hold nearly as much reverence without the first part of that equation.
All of which leads back to that big picture.
Mickelson turned 43 on Sunday and while his window remains open, it will become tougher to squeeze through in coming years. Only one player older than 43 has ever claimed this title. And nobody has claimed it after as much failure.
“This one's probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” he explained. “Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Greg Norman, a fellow Hall of Fame member who is similarly remembered as much for his failures at a major championship as his monumental success, recently told Forbes in regard to his Masters white-knucklers, “Those are the ones when you start to wonder about destiny. But if I dwell on it too much, it starts to turn me into a friggin’ psychopath.”
There’s an excellent chance Mickelson will forever live his life knowing this exact feeling, wondering about destiny or golf gods or his own damned luck. It could turn him into a friggin’ psychopath if he dwells on it too much. It could eat away at him if he lets it.
Don’t cry for Mickelson, though. If the worst thing that happens in his career – one in which he has amassed three green jackets, one Wanamaker Trophy and millions upon millions of dollars – is that he never wins the U.S. Open, the heartbreak will remain surrounded by so much achievement.
Still, though, there will always be that emptiness. The next time Woods or anyone else looks Mickelson in the eye, makes a rectangular motion with his two index fingers and says “big picture,” he’ll remember the six U.S. Opens that got away – and the one at Merion that hurt most of all.