ARDMORE, Pa. – Fourteen years ago this Sunday the late Payne Stewart took Phil Mickelson’s head in his hands and offered the ultimate consolation, telling the left-hander that what he was about to experience was much more important than what he had just lost.
The next day, Amy Mickelson gave birth to the couple’s first child, Amanda.
On Wednesday, Phil Mickelson was at home in San Diego to attend Amanda’s eighth-grade graduation, before jumping on a red-eye flight back to Philadelphia to make his 7:11 a.m. ET tee time at this week’s U.S. Open.
This time, however, he’s hoping to be both, an Open champion and a good father.
The former was easy enough, at least in Lefty’s mind.
“(Amanda) told me that it's fine. Stay, it's the U.S. Open, I know how much you care about it,” said Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday. “I told her that I want to be there. I don't want to miss that. I don't want to miss her speech. I don't want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school. And she's worked very hard and I'm very proud of her.”
As for the latter, that seemed to come easy as well despite a lengthy weather delay on Day 1 at Merion and even lengthier rough.
Following a three-putt bogey at his first hole (No. 11), Mickelson was flawless the rest of the way, finishing his round with two birdies over his last four holes and, more importantly at an Open, converting every par save coming down the stretch.
Not bad for a guy who boarded his G-5 at 8:15 p.m. PT on Wednesday, arrived in Philadelphia just past 4 a.m., and was at Merion by 5:30 to prepare for his opening effort.
If the U.S. Open is golf’s toughest test, as many players contend, Lefty added a degree of difficulty with his cross-country odyssey that wouldn’t appear to be a recipe for success. But as he did 14 years ago at Pinehurst when he lost to Stewart by a stroke, Mickelson put family first.
In 1999, Mickelson was prepared to fly home to be with his wife even if that meant giving up his chance of winning the most important title that has eluded him. It was the same mentality that sent him home on Monday, and he figured that tactically he knew everything he needed to know about the course.
“I got all my work done on Merion last (Monday and Tuesday). I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course,” said Mickelson, who initially intended to fly home on Tuesday after a practice round but changed his plans when Merion was soaked by a storm on Monday. “I didn't feel I needed more time at Merion, what I needed was to get my game sharp, to get my touch sharp.”
For a player who is often accused of overthinking things, his decision to forgo the normal major championship preparation seems to have hit all the notes, at least through 18 wet holes.
That’s not to say Mickelson has entirely abandoned his normal mind games. The same guy who played one U.S. Open with no driver in the bag and a Masters with two drivers took it a step further this week, benching the Phranken-wood (a hybrid fairway wood that replaced his driver this year) for an additional wedge.
It was hard to argue with the idea of trading extra yardage for additional loft late Thursday. Mickelson salvaged his momentum with a par save at No. 5 from 12 feet after driving into a creek and from 7 feet at the sixth after missing another green.
“I think in the U.S. Open, par saves are as big or bigger than birdies because you don't really expect birdies,” Mickelson said. “Those two par putts, those are the momentum builders that are important in the rounds at a U.S. Open. They actually give you more of a boost than birdies do.”
Well that and some caffeine at the turn when the red-eye began catching up with him. After a few hours of sleep on the flight from the West Coast, Mickelson managed about an hour’s sleep before he headed to the course Thursday and the three-hour weather delay was a much-needed intermission.
For Mickelson, however, the U.S. Open is its own energy boost. The five-time runner-up is defined almost as much by his Open misses (see Winged Foot, 2006) as he is by his other major triumphs.
His affinity for the Open was particularly evident when he paused to tell USGA executive director Mike Davis as he rounded past the iconic Merion clubhouse midway through his round, “this is my favorite Open setup ever.”
But for Lefty the Open is a love that has been painfully requited from Pinehurst to Bethpage.
“If I'm able, and I believe I will, if I'm able to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that it's great,” he said. “Because I will have had ... let's say a win and five seconds. But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heartbreaking.”
During that very public moment on Pinehurst’s 18th green in 1999, Stewart also told Mickelson that he will get another chance to win his U.S. Open. That he would also get plenty of chances to be a good father didn’t need to be mentioned.