Anyone who has played golf understands that when things aren’t going as expected, sometimes the best thing you can do is “change it up.”
In that spirit, after two decades of following Phil Mickelson’s endeavors at the U.S. Open as an on-site journalist, this week I’ll be watching as a fan from the sofa at home.
Hopefully it’s not too late for Mickelson’s career-slam hopes as he turns 48 on Saturday with the first of his three favorite U.S. Open courses on deck as he barrels toward senior-circuit status.
“When I first came out, I just wanted to win any major,” Mickelson said Monday at Shinnecock Hills, 28 years after making his major debut in the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah as an amateur. “It wasn’t U.S. Open-specific or Masters-specific. It was any major. Now that I’ve won the other three majors, it’s U.S. Open-specific. I would love to win this one to win all four. That’s certainly a goal and nothing I’m shying away from.”
From 1997 to 2016, I was blessed to cover 20 consecutive U.S. Opens. In that window, a few remarkable figures stand out.
Tiger Woods won three of them – one of them by 15 strokes and another on a broken leg.
Retief Goosen should have won three of them – his 2005 meltdown at Pinehurst still puzzles – yet he didn’t get a special exemption to return to the site of his last triumph this week.
Only twice did any of them culminate in the dreaded 18-hole playoff – a great relief considering it took the USGA until this year to finally concede that taking an extra day to crown a winner was against everyone’s best interests.
But the most remarkable statistic from 20 consecutive U.S. Opens is that Mickelson finished second in 30 percent of them – a record six times in a 15-year span (40 percent) from 1999 to 2013.
Pretty remarkable for anyone, much less a guy whose driving accuracy has never been exactly USGA certified.
“Of all the events, you would think that this would be the (major) that he would have the least chance to win because of the way he’s driven it for most of his career,” said Woods of his long-time rival. “But that short-game of his is off the charts. ... He’s made some of the more difficult pars that you have to make to win this tournament, it’s just that he hasn’t (won it). For him to be able to somehow pull it off at his age, to complete the career grand slam, would be an unbelievable task and unbelievable accomplishment.”
Other than in 2002 at Bethpage, when Mickelson never really threatened Woods on Sunday before finishing three strokes back, there was a late moment when everyone was all but certain that we would be writing about Mickelson’s triumph.
In 1999 at Pinehurst, despite carrying a beeper that might have summoned him home for the birth of his first child at any moment, Mickelson led by one with three holes to play before Payne Stewart sank him with three consecutive one-putts.
In 2004 at Shinnecock, Mickelson birdied three of four holes to take a one-shot lead with two to play on Goosen before make a double bogey from a rock-impeded lie in the bunker on the par-3 17th hole.
In 2006 at Winged Foot, despite fighting his control, he held a one-shot lead on the 18th tee before hitting a tent, a tree and a bunker en route to a shocking double bogey that left the trophy to Geoff Ogilvy while he called himself “an idiot.”
In 2009 at Bethpage, with his wife’s recent breast cancer surgery on his mind, he held the lead again late in the final round after making eagle on No. 13 only to make bogeys at 15 and 17 to finish two behind Lucas Glover.
Then in 2013 at Merion, despite commuting across the country to his daughter’s middle- school graduation, he vaulted into a share of the lead again Sunday with a chip-in eagle on No. 10 before derailing himself with a bogey on the short par-3 13th en route to another numbing runner-up to Justin Rose.
Most golf reporters have Mickelson’s U.S. Open history memorized or on a save string for short-hand recycling, though Mickelson isn’t one to ever dwell on the subject.
“I use the disappointments as a learning experience,” Mickelson saidon Monday.
Nobody has ever learned more the hard way about one particular major than Mickelson in his national championship. Not Sam Snead back in his day of missing out on his own career slam. Not even Greg Norman in his unrequited quest at the Masters.
Time is running out on Mickelson’s hopes of joining the career-slam fraternity he belongs in. He’s already three years older than Hale Irwin was when he became the oldest U.S. Open winner the week Mickelson made his major debut. Julius Boros was only four months older than Mickelson is now when he set the record for the oldest major winner at the 1968 PGA.
But Mickelson is still playing inspired golf. He won for the first time in five years in the WGC event in Mexico in February. He’s got Shinnecock, Pebble Beach (where he’s won four times) and Winged Foot on his immediate U.S. Open horizon through his 50th birthday.
“These three provide me a great opportunity to finish out this final leg,” he said. “Certainly, with the way I’ve been playing this year and at the consistency level, as well as at a much higher level than I’ve played the last few years, gives me a great opportunity.
“But the last thing I’m thinking about right now is trying to win. I’m trying to get myself in position for the weekend because, when you try to go out and win a U.S. Open, you will lose it quick.”