MAMARONECK, N.Y. – If we’re being honest, Phil Mickelson’s tortured relationship with the U.S. Open ended last year at Pebble Beach.
He’d banked PGA Tour title No. 44 in February on the Monterey Peninsula, and despite all that unrequited love from the national championship, the seaside links figured to be one venue where Phil’s liabilities off the tee would be mitigated. But they weren’t. He fired wayward drives all over the lot and finished 17 strokes behind eventual champion Gary Woodland.
After the 2019 championship it was clear that U.S. Open venues weren’t getting any easier for Phil, and at 50 years old, Lefty wasn’t getting any straighter off the tee. The sun had set on Mickelson's quest to win the one major championship that had eluded him and secure the career Grand Slam.
It was simple logic, but then there’s nothing logical about Phil or his fandom. Sentimentality, even the misplaced variety, runs deep with Lefty and with this year’s championship returning to Winged Foot - the site of his most crushing defeat - there were those who couldn’t resist the fairytale.
The heart wants what the heart wants.
There was even one zealot fan with far too much disposable income who dropped $45,000 on a bet that Mickelson would win the U.S. Open. At 75-to-1, that would have paid $3.3 million.
It took an early three-hole stretch on Thursday for even the most unwavering Phil fan to realize what seemed so obvious last year at Pebble - Lefty’s time as a serious U.S. Open contender is over.
Mickelson bogeyed Nos. 3, 4 and 5 on Day 1, on his way to a 79 that was the third worst score on a relatively benign day on the West Course. The mind was willing, but the body of work speaks for itself – 29 starts in the U.S. Open, six runner-up finishes and not a top 10 since 2013.
After nearly three decades of heartbreak, the U.S. Open had one final wound to inflict. When Mickelson teed off at 8:07 a.m. ET for Round 2, he was greeted with temperatures in the low 60s, a cold wind and virtually no chance to prolong the inevitable.
Each of Lefty’s near-misses told a story. In ’99 at Pinehurst, there was the pager (that’s a thing, Goggle it) and the looming birth of his first child. Three years later at Bethpage he was, in truth, little more than a supporting character for Tiger Woods, and in ’04 at Southern Hills, he ran into a South African buzz saw named Retief Goosen (a 71st-hole double bogey didn't help, either). In ’09 at Bethpage he finished second to Lucas Glover, but was anointed the “people’s champion” by the New York masses.
But it was at Winged Foot, 14 years ago, where he endured the ultimate U.S. Open haymaker. Leading by a stroke on the 72nd tee he hit a corporate tent, a tree and finished with a double bogey and a stroke behind champion Geoff Ogilvy.
“I am such an idiot,” he said that day.
Not that Mickelson has ever needed a hype man, but history should also note that he was also a tad unlucky that day at Winged Foot. Had he not ended up with a decent lie after his wayward drive on the 18th hole perhaps he would have allowed for a punch out and the possibility of a scrambling par.
There was something very apropos about Phil’s chilly sendoff on Friday. After spending so many warm Father’s Day Sundays chasing the elusive U.S. Open trophy an autumn in New York, complete with a cold wind and the hint of color in trees, felt right as Mickelson turns into the downwind leg of his Hall of Fame career.
There are no fans at Winged Foot because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Phil misses the fans the most. But even if there would have been a reason to celebrate, he offered none of his signature staples – the boyish smile, the thumbs up, the pro’s nod.
When he two-putted for par from 30 feet at the 15th hole a small group of fans huddled behind the makeshift fences offered a tepid, “Let’s go, Phil.” It didn’t help.
On the 17th green, Lefty gazed at an electronic leaderboard without his name on it, absentmindedly scanning the front-runners before heading to the infamous 18th tee.
He hit driver, again, but this time he pulled it into the right rough. He punched out with a knee-high swing just short of the green and hit a flop shot that nestled 2 feet from the hole for a par. A par, of course.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the end.
This championship that he’s loved and lost for so long wasn’t finished taking. There were four more bogeys on his closing loop (he started on No. 10) for a 4-over 74. His week was over. His time as a championship contemporary at golf’s toughest test was over.
“I’m going to take a few weeks off and go from there,” he told Golf Channel on Friday afternoon. “I’m a little disappointed, because I’d prepared and worked hard and felt ready, and I got out here - after playing some really good golf the last few months at home, I get out here and I play some of my worst. I’ve got to find a way to take it from practice to out here.”
There’s more PGA Tour golf for Lefty. November’s Masters beckons and despite his recent success on the PGA Tour Champions he is far too driven for that just yet. But his twisted relationship with the U.S. Open has come full stop, as there is little chance he'll again qualify, with one final forgettable week at Winged Foot. It was a messy finish to a messy chapter in an otherwise tidy career.