PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Phil Mickelson missed a 22-inch putt here Thursday, but at least he only hit the ball once. In last year’s U.S. Open, remember, he took a whack at a putt that was still rolling, in a moment of un-conscientious objection that had been building for years. Mickelson is one of the greatest golfers ever. This tournament is his annual reminder that the ghosts of the game chase everybody.
Mickelson shot a one-over 72 at Pebble Beach on Thursday, thought he should have shot considerably better, and knew he could only blame himself. All of it was frustrating. Mickelson has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Open, and both the love and hate are fluid. He has never won it. He has finished second six times. He wants to win this, the only major he is missing, more than he wants to win anything else. But his frustrations with the USGA are extreme even by the standards of PGA Tour players. They believe the USGA sets up its golf courses with the uncredited assistance of Satan.
This was evident afterward when I asked what seemed to me to be a straightforward golf question, about the pace of the greens. Every player struggles with the pace sometimes. This seemed to be one of those days for Mickelson. He seemed to think, understandably, it was a question about the USGA, which sometimes seems to want sheets of ice instead of greens.
“Ummm … I don’t know,” Mickelson said. “I think this is the best I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it will get progressively more difficult. This was a chance to get a few under par and I just didn’t do it.”
When he was asked, directly, if the USGA got it right this time, he said, “It seems like it. I mean, it seems like it. There’s three more days, you don’t know how the weather is going to be and all that stuff. But it seems like they did a heck of a job.”
The subtext here is that Mickelson knows the USGA did a good job Thursday but he doesn’t want to admit it. And he knows that he lost the high ground in this discussion with his ridiculous penalty last year, which should have disqualified him from that event.
The U.S. Open is so far in Mickelson’s head, it reads the logos on his cap backwards. The tournament taunts him. His playing partners in the first round, Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell, have each won the event, and the USGA has helpfully adorned the names on the placards with outlines of the trophy, as if to remind Mickelson.
The first time Mickelson finished second, at Pinehurst in 1999, wasn’t so bad. He was young. He hadn’t won a major. He was about to become a father. He lost to Payne Stewart. He would have more chances. But after three-second place finishes, it became annoying.
And in 2006, when Mickelson melted down on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot, his U.S. Open struggles became one of the biggest ongoing stories in golf. That Winged Foot debacle does not define Mickelson’s career by any stretch, but it was so Phil—of all the game’s true all-time greats, he was perhaps most likely to botch a finishing hole like that. The Phil who hit a preposterous shot off pine straw on his way to a Masters triumph is the same Phil who made two horrendous decisions at Winged Foot. He is, literally and figuratively, a gambler. It’s one reason he is so much fun to watch.
Mickelson turns 49 Sunday. Every year at this event, fans sing “Happy birthday” to him, but he never gets the gift he really wants.
He is in this weird competitive place, still good enough to believe he can win the big ones but perhaps not good enough to actually do it. He admits that the past can creep into his thoughts here. That is one of his challenges.
“Certainly that’s going to be important, but the good news for me is I’m playing really well,” he said. “It’s the best I’ve played in a long time, certainly since the start of the year.”
He said he missed that short putt because “I flinched … my concentration, I should be able to tap that in.”
After he signed his card, he signed autographs; nobody in golf has signed so many in the last 25 years. Then he talked to the media, and he said what he surely believes: “I’ve played this course for so many years. I know how to shoot under par on it. I just need to shoot something in the 60s and I’ll be fine for the weekend.”
Then Mickelson parked himself on the far right side of the range and hit a few shots while his coach, Andrew Getson, watched and helped him work out a kink or two. It would be nice to think he just needs to make a few physical tweaks. It’s more likely that the U.S. Open will remain undefeated against Phil Mickelson, and he will have to answer more questions about the USGA and the past next year, when the tournament goes back to Winged Foot.