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Latest U.S. Open near-miss motivates Mickelson

Phil Mickelson at the 2013 U.S. Open
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – It’s been two and a half weeks since Phil Mickelson’s latest and – by his own admission – greatest chance of winning the U.S. Open, another opportunity that turned into a soul-crushing defeat on a sullen Sunday. He’s had two and a half weeks to ponder the events that transpired at Merion Golf Club that fateful afternoon. Two and a half weeks to mourn. Two and a half weeks to lament.

When he is asked about the dark days that came after a sixth career runner-up Open finish, a number which extended his own personal record, he smiles. Not a forced smile or a polite smile, but a genuine smile at the recollection of the time that followed.

“We had such a great time,” he says. “Oh, my goodness.”

Believe it or not, Mickelson didn’t spend the last two and a half weeks curled up in the fetal position, getting up only to kick himself at the memory of unforced errors. He returned to San Diego for two days at home, then took a family vacation to the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont.

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“It’s the greatest place on earth,” he maintains unabashedly. “We did fly fishing, the kids did trap shooting, archery – like, real archery, shooting these awesome arrows – whitewater rafting, ziplining. My oldest daughter is big into paleontology, loves dinosaurs and history. The most world-renowned paleontologist is there. His name is Jack Horner. We ended up having a chance to spend time with him for an hour on Amanda’s birthday and it was the first time I’ve seen her star-struck. It was so cool.”

There is no correct way to overcome a loss like the one Mickelson suffered at this year’s U.S. Open. No singular method of rebounding from yet another torturous blow.

Three times during the final round his name was atop the leaderboard. All three times he quickly retreated from that position. When the dust settled and the horizon cleared, he had finished two strokes behind winner Justin Rose, another white-knuckler in a career filled with them.

With time to ruminate on his personal list of “The One That Got Away,” he ranks it No. 1, behind even the 2006 edition of the tournament, when he let a lead slip away on the final hole at Winged Foot.

“I was playing so well and the golf course is suited for me and everything just set up perfectly,” he says. “Winged Foot, there’s no way I was going to hit that last fairway. I hadn’t hit a fairway all day. That would have been pretty cool to win that one having driven it as badly as I did. It would have been unheard of. But Merion I was playing really well. Still am.”

Therein lies perhaps the greatest takeaway from Mickelson’s defeat: It’s actually motivated him to continue playing better golf.

“I’m disappointed,” he acknowledges. “It took me a few days to just not do much, but the fact is, in the last few months I’ve had some breakthroughs in my game. I’m playing better than I have in years. My putting hasn’t been this good in four or five years. My driving is off the charts. I mean, I’m hitting fairways at the U.S. Open and I’m moving it out there a decent amount. So I’m excited to keep playing, because I keep putting myself in good positions and I’m playing better than I have in a long time. In years.”

Just because he’s looking ahead to the future doesn’t mean Mickelson has been able to completely block out the past.

When he looks back at that final round, he points to wedge shots on 13 and 15 as his ultimate undoing. Each led to an untimely bogey and undeterred irony – one of the game’s all-time great wedge players failing to win the tournament he’s wanted for so long because of faulty wedge play.

“I misclubbed on 13,” he admits. “I never should have hit a pitching wedge; I should have hit a gap and take the back out of play. Because if I overcook to the pin, it goes long, so that was a misclub. … We had a lot of wind. We had wind swinging in and left to right. It picked up when we got there. I thought, ‘Gosh, if I hit a gap wedge into this wind, I wonder if it will carry.’ It just kind of came up at a bad time. That’s when the rain came. I started putting on 12 and the wind and the rain picked up. We got to the 13th tee box and I ended up taking one more club.

“And then I quit on 15. I had a perfect gap wedge. If I hit it hard and fly it, get it past the hole, it should come back down that hill. I quit on it and put it in such a bad spot.”

With that, Mickelson pauses and shrugs. “Oh, well,” he sighs. It’s not a measure of carelessness or insensitivity. Just the concession of a player who has felt this heartache before and grown accustomed to it again over the past two and a half weeks.

“It happens,” he says. “Golf is a game that you end up losing so much more than you win. You have to deal with losing a lot more. Even the highest-percentage winners of all time lose more than they win. It’s like batting in baseball. The best hitters still fail a majority of the time. It happens. But it’s time to move on, you know?

“I had a good chance to win and I’m certainly bummed that I didn’t, but I can’t wait to get back out and play. It’s exciting for me, because I’m just starting to play at the level I always knew I could.”