PINEHURST, N.C. – Phil Mickelson walked off Pinehurst No. 2 on Sunday afternoon, putter in hand and familiar smile on his face. There was no calling himself an idiot this time. He wasn’t burying his head in his hands or grabbed by the cheeks in consolation by a fellow competitor.
The man who’s endured so many close calls at the U.S. Open – six of 'em, to be exact, where he was defeated by only one other competitor – was never close enough in this one to feel the sting of another mind-numbing loss in the one tournament which has so deftly eluded his grasp throughout the years.
And so following a final-round score of 72 that eventually left him in a share of 28th place, it stood to reason that this was actually a more palatable end result. That finishing 16 shots behind the winner was an easier pill to swallow than succumbing by one measly stroke and forever regretting a single wayward tee shot or balky putt. That losing big is better than losing small.
Mickelson quickly took a lashing 3-iron to that theory.
“It is way worse,” he said of failing to get into serious contention.
You could tell he meant it, too.
This is a player who thrives on the heat of the battle, who desperately wants an opportunity to win a golf tournament on Sunday afternoon. Especially this one, the one that’s always gotten away.
“There's nothing more exciting than having a chance,” he explained. “There's nothing more exciting than waking up Sunday with a 3:25 tee time and an opportunity to win the U.S. Open, whether you win or lose, because that pressure, that nervous feeling, those butterflies, that energy from the crowd when you make a birdie, the excitement, there's no replacement for that. That's why we play.”
That’s why Mickelson will keep playing, too, every year the U.S. Open will allow him, repeatedly searching for that missing puzzle piece to his career Grand Slam.
He turned 44 on Monday and if his window to win this championship is starting to close even slightly, he isn’t willing to admit it. Publicly, at least, Mickelson is still brimming with optimism. He’s still clinging to the dream that he’s not only going to win once, he’s going to add multiple U.S. Open titles to his resume.
It’s this confidence that allowed him to win his first major at age 34, after so many years of knocking on the proverbial doors. It’s the same confidence that allowed him to win four more, including last year’s Open Championship on the type of course to which he’d never before grown accustomed.
“I believe in the next five years I'm going to have three or four really good chances,” he said. “And I do believe I will get it.”
Of course, there are some forces working against him.
In the history of major championships, only seven players 44 or older have won – and just one of those wins came at the U.S. Open, when Hale Irwin triumphed at the age of 45 in 1990.
Then there’s the list of course venues. Next year’s tournament will be held at Chambers Bay for the first time, a great unknown if there’s ever been one. Same goes for that of 2017, which will be played at Erin Hills. Those will sandwich a return to Oakmont in two years, not a favorite of Mickelson, who injured his wrist hitting out of the dense rough prior to the 2007 edition of the event, then failed to make the cut.
He won’t get a chance to play Shinnecock Hills, where he finished second in 2004, until four years from now. He’ll turn 48 that week – the same age as Julius Boros when he became the oldest major champion in history. Pebble Beach, where he’s won four regular PGA Tour titles, comes one year later, followed by Winged Foot (second place in 2006) and Torrey Pines (where he’s won three times on Tour).
By the time he reaches that latter course, so synonymous with his image, Mickelson will be 51 years old. It’s difficult to believe he’ll be able to contend for this elusive title at that point, but this is a player who’s thrived on proving people wrong throughout his career.
In the aftermath of his 28th-place result at Pinehurst, he could have bellyached about time running out. He could have wallowed in self-pity after so publicly proclaiming that he was putting all of his eggs in this basket, that his entire year was geared toward trying to finally win the U.S. Open.
Instead, he just smiled about a week that never went his way.
“I'm not upset or disappointed,” he said. “I will have more chances.”