It was a classic Phil Mickelson performance in Memphis, which means it was a decidedly mixed bag.
There were dazzling approaches and crowd-pleasing putts. There was a run up the leaderboard and into contention. But there was also a final-round wipeout, one that later came with an honest admission.
It was the type of performance that fans have come to expect from the 46-year-old who still strolls fairways wearing a perma-smile, but also one that has kept a 43rd career title frustratingly out of reach. It’s the type of show that will be sorely missed at Erin Hills.
Mickelson finished alone in ninth place at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, three shots behind Daniel Berger. His undoing was as swift as it was shocking: a triple-bogey 7 on the 12th hole that dropped Lefty from a share of the lead into a position from which he was unlikely to recover.
It began with a tee shot out of bounds, followed by a watery approach. It was, frankly, a good triple, if such a thing exists.
After the round, Mickelson told CBS that he was caught off-guard by a quick glance at a leaderboard behind the 11th green, one that showed he had already made up a four-shot deficit and had grabbed a share of the lead.
“I saw that I was tied for the lead, and it kind of shook me, to be honest,” Mickelson said. “It threw me because I didn’t expect to be there, I thought I was still chasing. It was as if I’ve never won before, as if I was a rookie. I was not as mentally focused as I needed to be, and something as simple as that threw me.”
Mickelson’s candor was admirable, but it also showed that his nearly four-year victory drought has become a burdensome yoke around his neck. Mickelson should have won since that dazzling display at Muirfield in July 2013, probably multiple times. But he hasn’t.
Sunday’s display was a great example of why the winner’s circle has eluded Lefty, as he made a costly error at a critical juncture. It also added to his list of recent close calls, one that is still topped by his stumble last year at Pebble Beach and also includes four other runner-up finishes since he lifted the claret jug.
For a man with more trophies than any case can display, the importance of his next one can’t be overstated.
That win will come, eventually, but Mickelson will inevitably have to conquer some nerves to get there. It’s a shame, then, that he won’t get an opportunity to do so next week in the one event he truly wants to win.
Yes, there’s still a chance that Mickelson could parachute into Erin Hills and stride right to the first tee box Thursday. But it will require an act of God, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the man upstairs has no interest in compelling opening-round storylines.
Needing, in his estimation, at least a four-hour weather delay in order to make it to Wisconsin from his daughter’s high-school graduation in Carlsbad, Calif., Mickelson will likely see only sunny skies over farm country. The deluge that rocked the opening round last year at Oakmont appears non-existent this time around.
“Last night there was a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms Thursday, and right now it’s 20 percent. So who knows,” Mickelson said. “But it’s not looking good, and it’s totally fine.”
Mickelson’s decision to attend commencement over a shot at closing out the career Grand Slam has been questioned by some and lauded by others. But should he never etch his name on the trophy, this particular choice will pale in comparison to his 72nd-hole club choice at Winged Foot on the list of major what-ifs.
Erin Hills was always going to be a great unknown. With its rolling fairways, long walks and fescue rough, it poses a stern test for any player, but especially one who will turn 47 on Friday and who eschewed practice rounds at The Players Championship last month in order to conserve energy.
Mickelson has long made his family a priority, including a cross-country itinerary to take in other commencement ceremonies prior to the 2013 and 2016 U.S. Opens. It’s a journey he assuredly would have signed up for this time around had Amanda’s graduation been a day earlier.
And while the big 5-0 is within sight, the list of future U.S. Open venues is one that should elicit a thumbs-up from Lefty: Shinnecock Hills next year, followed by returns to Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and Torrey Pines. All places where Mickelson has won or contended in the past.
So U.S. Open glory could still be in store for the player who has had one hand on the hardware six different times. It’s just unfortunate for golf fans that the calendars likely won’t align to afford him a chance to author another classic Mickelson performance in the coming days.