ARDMORE, Pa. - Phil Mickelson scaled the old stairs of the old clubhouse and ducked into the small room above the library.
His second practice round at Merion was behind him and he was looking to wrap his arms around history.
A stack of Ben Hogan ashtrays – with the Hawk wielding his 1-iron – sat on a shelf to his left. In front of Mickelson an array of vintage clubs, their once shiny faces gone dull.
And behind him, on a large table, a guest registry book for those who take the time to visit the Merion Golf Club archives.
Mickelson, right-handed in everything but golf, grabbed a pen and signed his name: “Phil Mickelson, Rancho Santa Fe, California.”
Mickelson took in one last look at the memorabilia and disappeared down the stairs, where an onlooker wished him luck at the 113th United States Open, one of the few pieces of golf history he has been unable to wrap his arms around.
“Thank you,” said Mickelson, and then he was gone.
Like Sam Snead before him, Mickelson has never won the U.S. Open, but he is as much a part of its fabric as many of its winners.
He has finished runner-up five times, the first in 1999 when Payne Stewart held Mickelson’s head in his hands and told the soon-to-be-father that nothing would beat the feeling of being a dad.
In 2002, at Bethpage Black, the Cult of Mickelson was born as New York’s faithful put Phil on its shoulders as it tried – and nearly succeeded – in lifting him above Tiger Woods.
There was the three-putt on the 71st hole of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills that ended his chase of Retief Goosen.
There was another mad dash at Bethpage in 2009, where Phil tried to bring the trophy home to his wife, Amy, who was in the throes of her battle with breast cancer.
And, of course, there was Winged Foot, in 2006, the one that stung him the most, shocked the golf world and stilled another New York gallery.
The sight of Mickelson crouched low on Winged Foot’s final green graced the cover of several magazines and at least one book.
The sound bite heard ’round the world – “I am such an idiot” – became a part of the game’s lexicon.
Phil recovered well enough, with another green jacket in 2010 plus 11 more PGA Tour victories besides.
But the U.S. Open has gone wanting, a championship that would elevate him from a Hall of Famer to an immortal.
During his two-day sojourn to Merion last week, Mickelson looked loose and happy.
Between the practice days, he attended a large dinner that included Matt Kuchar, Baltusrol head pro Doug Steffen and a number of movers and shakers of the Philadelphia golf scene.
Mickelson commands a room the way he commands a greenside bunker, ever confident in word and in deed, comfortable throwing some jabs and parrying them, too.
He was born in San Diego, but Mickelson has always been a better fit back east, where chattiness, a love of sports and a sharp wit make you a welcome guest in any home.
Mickelson once said that the greatest thing about being a Masters champion is the knowledge that every spring Augusta National’s doors will be open to you. It’s a lifetime ticket to golf’s most exclusive club, a locker upstairs, and a seat at the Champions Dinner, no reservation required.
Mickelson has sometimes awakened long before his Masters’ Thursday tee time, just to be present for the dawn tee shots of Arnie, Jack and Gary.
But the perks of winning a United States Open are no less important, the survival of golf’s most rigorous examination, the claiming of our national championship, the knowledge that you have walked where Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer have, where Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino have, where Tom Watson and Woods have.
Mickelson will celebrate his 43rd birthday on Father’s Day, a happy coincidence of the calendar that makes his chase of a U.S. Open all the more poignant.
His first of three children was born the day after Payne Stewart gave him that sage advice. His swing remains long and fluid, his nose for a golf hole as attuned as it has ever been.
And Mickelson’s yearning for golf history is endless, which is why he lingered in Merion’s archives, knowing that a little piece of Hogan and Bobby Jones lives in that room, and that if things go right this week, he will have left more than a signature in a guest book.