- Phil Mickelson wants to win the U.S. Open more than any other tournament. Should he win one, he'd become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. But he's running out of time.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The storyline was all set up for Phil Mickelson to win his first U.S. Open and complete the career grand slam this weekend. The course was not.
The fans at Shinnecock Hills were ready for the fairy tale. Even Rory McIlroy said Monday that if he weren’t rooting for himself, he’d be rooting for Mickelson. Jordan Spieth reacted to a missed Mickelson birdie on 16—they started on the back nine—as if he himself had yanked the putt. This is the one Phil wants more than anything, after an impossible six times as runner-up. The fans know as well as he does that if he doesn’t do it in the next three years—here, in 2019 at Pebble Beach or in 2020 at Winged Foot—he is probably out of luck. He turns 48 on Saturday. He has spent every birthday since his 20th thinking about this tournament. The failure has grown old with him.
The rowdy New York crowds have loved this native Californian since they adopted him in 2002 at Bethpage Black, about an hour west of Shinnecock on Long Island. Those same fans incited Greg Norman to engage in a shouting match in 1986 and Sergio Garcia to flip them off in 2002, but Phil the Thrill’s flair for the dramatic and underdog status appealed to them. They spent the weekend that year singing Happy Birthday to him and urging him to sink more birdie putts. In the years since, the patrons have begun to resemble bleacher creatures, chanting “Let’s go Mick-el-son” and starting the wave.
On Thursday, they exhorted his ball and complimented him on his attire. “You look great today!” someone shouted as he waited on the 16th tee. “Love that button-down!” They greeted him as if he were entering his own bachelor party: “PHIIIL!” The galleries began to empty when he holed out, leaving the players ranked merely Nos. 4 (Jordan Spieth) and 6 (Rory McIlroy) in the world to putt as a mess of fans scrambled to the next tee. Fans who brutally heckle groundskeepers (“This looks like my backyard,” someone griped while crossing the 18th fairway) and security guards (“What are you, a union rope attendant? Come on!”) earnestly tell Mickelson that they believe in him. This is a region for which the term “Bronx cheer” was invented; its denizens moaned along with him when, putting for birdie on the 8th hole, he crushed his putt past the pin and then missed the par effort.
“I like to make the easy holes easier and the hard holes harder,” Mickelson had said Monday of his preferred course layout. They were all hard on a Thursday that saw him finish at seven over par, flanked by playing partners who didn’t fare much better. Spieth missed more short putts en route to an eight-over 78 while McIlroy shot 80.
That mistake on 8 seemed emblematic of Mickelson’s problem at this event and on this day. He said before the tournament that when he tried to win the U.S. Open on Thursday, he went home on Friday, but he is a swashbuckler who eschews the safe, go-for-par style the USGA rewards. The conditions Thursday were difficult, with an unpredictable wind and fast greens—the usually garrulous Mickelson declined to speak with reporters, but Spieth said he thought a score of four over par would have put him in the mix—and Mickelson struggled to get comfortable. The fans appeared to grow anxious as he fell further back. His deficit is not insurmountable, but those failures have almost become self-perpetuating.
At first, his relationship with this tournament did not seem cursed. In 1999 at Pinehurst, Mickelson held a one-stroke lead after 15 holes on Sunday, then missed a birdie putt on 18 that would have put him in a playoff with Payne Stewart, who died shortly thereafter. In 2002 at Bethpage, Mickelson came within two shots of the lead in the final round before losing by three to Tiger Woods. No shame in that.
But in 2004 at Shinnecock, came the one Mickelson has said he “should have won more than any other.” He birdied Nos. 13, 15 and 16 on Sunday to give himself a one-stroke lead he thought would be enough. Then his tee shot on 17 landed in the front left bunker, and he hit a rock trying to play out of it. He eventually three-putted on the unrelenting, parched green, shaking his head as he retrieved his ball. Retief Goosen ended up the winner by two. The near miss, Mickelson said afterward, was “just as disappointing as it was thrilling to win a Masters.”
In 2006 at Winged Foot, he strode to the 18th tee on Sunday needing par to win or just a bogey to get into a playoff. He had made three separate scouting trips to the course that year, for a total of nine days. He had won the last two majors, giving him a shot at the Tiger Slam, and entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the world.
None of that mattered when he came to the 18th tee. He sliced his tee shot into a hospitality tent, then took a reckless line out of the rough and nailed a tree. The ball rolled back toward him as if to taunt him. In the end, he made double bogey and an absolute mess.
“I still am in shock that I did that,” he said in a red-eyed press conference that was delayed because he sequestered himself in the scorers’ area. “I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot."
In 2009, back at Bethpage Black, he was tied for the lead with five holes to play on Sunday. A missed putt for par, a three-putt for bogey, another missed putt for another par, a bogey and a par later, he finished in a three-way tie for second as Lucas Glover became the newest person not named Phil Mickelson to win the U.S. Open. The USGA only had one silver medal, which is traditionally awarded to the runner-up, on hand. “I’ve got four of those,” Mickelson said. “I’m good.”
And then in 2013 at Merion, he held at least a share of the lead after each of the first three days but shot four over par on Sunday to give himself the record no one wants. “I think this was my best chance,” he said afterward. “Every time I think of the U.S. Open, I just think of heartbreak.” Justin Rose won that day.
He can track his life by that heartbreak. His oldest child, Amanda, was born a few days after he lost to Stewart; Mickelson entrusted his caddie with a beeper and promised to leave the course no matter where he stood should his wife, Amy, go into labor. He flew to Merion the morning of the first round because he wanted to be there when Amanda graduated from eighth grade. He missed last year’s U.S. Open, at Erin Hills, to watch her graduate from high school.
Mickelson has already shed one unwanted title, Best Player Never to Win a Major. But this is different. Finish top 10 in those events 17 times, as he did between 1999 and 2003, and redemption is always just a few months away. Any one of them will do. Not so with this quest. He spends all year dreaming about this 84-hour period. He made at least two separate scouting trips to Shinnecock this spring.
And now he shot 77 on Thursday. It’s not over. Even-par tomorrow would keep him close enough to strike. But there are not many blank pages left in this book.