UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Hmmm … what to give Phil Mickelson for his 45th birthday?
The man has almost everything, of course, so how about a harsh reminder: Historically speaking, this is likely his last chance to win that elusive U.S. Open.
Golf’s toughest major only gets more difficult to win as the years and scar tissue pile up.
Hale Irwin is the oldest winner of this championship; he was 45 years and 15 days old when he won in 1990. If Mickelson were to hoist the silver trophy on Sunday, he’d be only 10 days younger.
Not that he’s celebrating the big 4-5 with any added pressure.
“I don’t feel that sense of urgency that you’re talking about,” he said Tuesday.
OK, but should he?
Mickelson is still in relatively good shape. The past few years, his body couldn’t withstand the long hours on the range, but with a renewed emphasis on fitness and diet he can now beat 400 or 500 balls without fear of wearing down.
Another thing to consider: Lefty hasn’t suffered a debilitating injury that has sidelined him for months. He has always had a long, flowing swing, and those players tend to be more durable over the long run as opposed to those with a short, violent motion.
“If I continue to do what I’ve done the last eight months or so,” he said, “there’s no reason why I couldn’t play at a high level for a while.”
But there have been signs recently that Mickelson is beginning to realize his golfing mortality.
He’s always endured highs and lows during his Hall of Fame career, but his last 23 months have been even more sporadic than usual. In the 41 events since his last win, at the 2013 Open Championship, Lefty has mustered only five top-5 finishes. Two of those have been runners-up in the last two majors. Another two have come in the past five weeks, including at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic (T-3).
Isn’t that remarkable? Even if he’s struggling, even if he’s searching, even if he has done practically zilch for the past year, Phil has still summoned his best stuff in the biggest moments to nearly steal the darn thing.
There are no simple, rational explanations for this, but that didn’t stop a few of the world’s best from trying.
“He’s still got plenty of power,” said Rickie Fowler, one of Mickelson’s frequent practice-round partners. “He’s still got all the shots in the bag. You could come up with a short-game shot and you’re not really going to ask anyone else other than him to hit it if there was a must-make up-and-down.
“He still impresses me with his game. Yeah, he turned 45 today, but I’m not looking to see him go away anytime soon.”
Every athlete watches his physical skill diminish over time, though. It’s a sad inevitability. So for Lefty, there must be something more, something deeper.
This is his 23rd full season on Tour, and for the better part of the past quarter century he has thrilled fans with his swashbuckling, go-for-broke style.
He isn’t afraid to win, which also means that he isn’t afraid to lose, sometimes spectacularly. His star-crossed history in this event only underscores that point: From Shinnecock to Winged Foot to Merion, Phil has been humbled like few in his sport ever have, but he’s never been afraid of losing, of failure, of getting his heart broken and then falling in love again.
“I can imagine if he’s up there in contention, he doesn’t really care if he finishes second or 15th or 18th or whatever,” Martin Kaymer said. “He wants to win.”
Whether he actually can this week is still very much uncertain. Listen to him closely, break down his sound bytes, and he seems just as likely to miss the cut as he is to contend.
“I feel like I’m back on the upswing,” he said … but a few minutes later he conceded that his revamped game is still “in its infancy.”
“I don’t know how far or how long it will take to get it really sharp,” he said. “I feel like it’s on the verge of coming around. I’ve said that for a while now, but I feel closer and closer each day.”
Which brings us to Chambers Bay, and what is shaping up as Mickelson’s last best chance to win a U.S. Open.
Funny, because before his breakthrough at the 2013 Open Championship, few would have given him a chance on this links-style layout. That thrilling comeback at baked, brown Muirfield not only changed the public’s perception of Mickelson, but also his view of himself, having adapted his free-swinging, sky-ball game to win across the pond.
Though not a traditional links, man-made Chambers exhibits many of the same qualities as Muirfield or St. Andrews, with rock-hard fairways, wispy fescue rough and severe, undulating greens that, above all, test a player’s short game and imagination.
That just so happens to be Mickelson’s area of expertise, and he lit up Tuesday when describing how players must play shots into banks and slopes and hillsides to funnel the ball close to the hole.
“You don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “You have a bigger margin of error.”
So maybe this is just the venue Mickelson needs to nab that elusive Open.
He better hope so. History suggests that, at 45, his time is running out.