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Back in the Shadow

June 26, 2006
June 26, 2006

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June 26, 2006

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Back in the Shadow

On the verge of surpassing Tiger Woods as the game's dominant player, Phil Mickelson instead blew the U.S. Open with a 72nd-hole collapse--failing to measure up to his archrival

FOR 69 holes oflast week's U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson did a pretty good Tiger Woodsimpersonation. For most of a wild final round at Winged Foot Golf Club, hefought off a handful of world-class players, tiptoeing to the precipice of somuch history. With a victory Mickelson would join Woods (2000), Jack Nicklaus(1971--72) and Ben Hogan (1953) as the fourth player to win three consecutivemajors in the modern era. (Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930 came before theMasters had been founded and included the U.S. and British Amateurs.) A win atWinged Foot would propel Mickelson to next month's British Open with a chanceto do the unthinkable: match Woods's greatest feat, the Tiger Slam, which is tohold the titles of all four major championships spread across two seasons. Moreimmediate, a victory at the Open would leave no doubt that Phil had surpassedTiger as the game's dominant player. But on Sunday, Mickelson shrank from theimmensity of the opportunity, handing an improbable victory to Australia'sGeoff Ogilvy.

Mickelson led by two after 15 holes and arrived at the 18th a shot ahead ofOgilvy, but on the tee of the 450-yard par-4 he made one of the worst swings ofhis career, a push-slice that bounced off a hospitality tent miles left of thefairway. What followed was a sequence of mistakes that will haunt Mickelson forthe rest of his life, if not longer. Trying to cut a three-iron around a treehe instead doinked its trunk, the ball rolling back at him, mockingly. On thereload Mickelson overcooked another cut shot, flying it into a buried lie inthe front left greenside bunker, which left him an impossible play to a backright pin. Minutes earlier he was poised to make history. Now he needed to getup and down just to force an 18-hole playoff. Mickelson's long bunker shot cameout hot and trickled off the green, and his ensuing chip for bogey--andsalvation--never had a chance.

This is an article from the June 26, 2006 issue Original Layout

The finish wasstunning in its swiftness, and cruelty. Mickelson hid out in the scorers' areatrying to collect himself; his wife, Amy, draped an arm around his shouldersand whispered in his ear. When Phil finally emerged, his eyes were red andwatery and he was still struggling to make sense of what had occurred. "Istill am in shock that I did that," he said. "I just can't believe thatI did that. I am such an idiot. I can't believe I couldn't par the last hole.It really stings."

It is a familiarhurt. The tie for second marked the 21st time that Mickelson had finishedseventh or better at a major. Since reinventing himself at the start of 2004 hehas won three majors, but in the same span he has kicked away just as many.Mickelson was leading the 2004 U.S. Open when he three-putted from five feet todouble bogey the 71st hole. Four weeks later, at the British Open, Mickelsonheld the lead with seven holes to play only to let it get away. But neither ofthose disappointments can compare with the gut-wrenching finish at Winged Foot."This one hurts more than any [other] tournament because I had it won,"he said. "I had it in my grasp and just let it go."

Mickelson'sself-immolation threw into sharp relief the key difference between him andWoods. Tiger is 10 for 10 protecting a 54-hole lead in a major. When it mattersmost his decision making and execution are flawless. Mickelson is clearly stilla work in progress, and knowing this may explain Woods's peevishness last weekwhen pressed about Phil. Asked at his Tuesday press conference about the stateof their rivalry, Woods refused to give Mickelson his due, merely lumping himwith other would-be contenders. "You have runs where Ernie was there for alittle bit, then Vijay, Goose," Woods said, "and now Phil." A winat Winged Foot would have dramatically changed the conversation, but nowMickelson will have to prove himself all over again.

Woods, meanwhile,came to this U.S. Open with other things on his mind besides Phil. It was hisfirst tournament since the death of his father, Earl, on May 3, and Tigerwanted to honor his memory. "I'm here to compete and play and try to winthis championship," he said. "I know that Dad would still want me togrind it and give it my best, and that's what I always do. That's what I willcertainly try to do this week."

It took threeholes for it to be clear that Woods would not be able to summon his usualpassion. On his opening hole he left an eight-foot par putt about a foot short.On the next he left an even shorter par putt even shorter. On the third holeWoods's 45-foot birdie putt came up 10 feet short, resulting in a thirdstraight bogey. This most imperious of competitors, who has conjured so muchawe, now elicited an entirely foreign emotion: pity. Woods continued tostruggle to find his speed on the greens and hit only three fairways en routeto a six-over 76.

On his fifth hole(number 14) of the second round he chunked a chip from the rough and blewanother short putt to make double bogey--and all the fight seemed to drain outof him. Woods bogeyed his final two holes to shoot another 76, missing the cutby three strokes. It was his first weekend off at a major since turning pro in1997, a span of 39 consecutive made cuts, which tied Nicklaus's alltimerecord.

With Woods off thepremises Mickelson imposed his will on the tournament on Saturday, playing theback nine in two under to charge into a tie for the lead. Lurking one strokeback was the 29-year-old Ogilvy, who has become a fixture on Tour leader boardsin the last year and a half. The wiry Australian hits it a ton off the tee withhis effortless swing and owns one of the most creative, and reliable, shortgames in golf. His physical gifts have always been apparent. He was considereda can't-miss prospect as far back as 1999, when he was the Australian tour'srookie of the year at 22. But in two ensuing seasons in Europe, and on the PGATour beginning in 2001, Ogilvy displayed a vexing inability to win.

Hisself-lacerating nature was mostly to blame, and his frustrations often led toon-course temper tantrums. "It was pretty embarrassing what I said tomyself," Ogilvy said earlier this year. "I would call [myself] uselessand say, What are you doing out here?--all sorts of stuff. I was hopeless."He has mellowed over the years, and his performance has improved as a result.Last season he broke through for his first Tour victory, at Tucson, and earlierthis year he won the Match Play Championship, along the way dusting majorchampions Michael Campbell, Mike Weir, Tom Lehman and Davis Love III.

Ogilvy can stillrun hot on occasion. During the third round his caddie since 1999, Alistair(Squirrel) Matheson, persuaded him to lay up on the par-5 12th hole. Ogilvyfailed to make birdie and then spent the better part of the next two holes inSquirrel's ear, complaining about the advice. Not coincidentally, Ogilvybogeyed both holes. About this time his wife, Juli, could be found pacing infront of the clubhouse. She had been watching the NBC broadcast and couldn'ttake listening to Johnny Miller continue to browbeat her husband about thedustup. "Of course they're going to have disagreements," Juli said ofher husband and his caddie. "It's like a marriage. They've been togetherseven years."

On Sunday morningJuli wished Geoff happy Father's Day, and "I didn't know how to takeit," he said. That's because the preggers Juli won't deliver their firstchild until November. Still, the holiday cheer must have inspired Ogilvybecause when he made birdies on 5 and 6 he suddenly had a two-stroke lead. Hewas still atop the leader board as late as the 10th hole, but with a bogey on11 he dropped one back of Mickelson into a four-way tie with Jim Furyk, PadraigHarrington and Colin Montgomerie.

That was whenOgilvy began a short-game clinic. He put his tee shot on the par-3 13th in abunker on the short side of the green, but he clanged his second shot off theflagstick and saved par. He got up and down for par at 16, and on the par-417th a series of misadventures in the gnarly rough left him lying three andstill 30 feet from the flag, in the first cut. As Ogilvy was sizing up the shotSquirrel pulled a Bruce Edwards, and his boss was all too happy to play thepart of Tom Watson. "He said, 'Just chip it in,'" Ogilvy remarkedafterward. 'Why don't you just chip it in?'" So he did.

On 18 Ogilvybusted a clutch drive down the fairway, but his ball came to rest in a divot.Betraying no emotion at his misfortune, he ripped a six-iron at the flag."I thought I had hit my career shot there," he said. "But it caughta soft bounce, and [the ball] came all the way back down the hill. And then Ithought I was really done for. I mean, you're not going to do it fromthere."

But he did,playing a delicate pitch to six feet and pouring the putt into the cup. "Iwas hitting that putt thinking this may get me in a playoff," Ogilvy said."I never thought Phil would make bogey at the last."

He didn't, ofcourse.

Ogilvy's winningscore of five over was the highest at an Open since 1974, when Hale Irwinsurvived the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot at seven over. To win on such agrueling track is a challenge as much mental as physical, and on Sunday eveningOgilvy spoke extensively about the psychological aspects of golf. "For themost part the best players are the best because they're the best up here,"he said, tapping his melon. "Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the worldbecause he's got the best brain. He hits the ball well, but there are plenty ofguys that hit the ball well. But he's got the best head."

Conspicuouslyabsent from the discussion was the star-crossed Mickelson. He had retreated tothe privacy of the clubhouse and was sitting at his locker, motionless, staringinto space with his head resting wearily in his hands. Amy came by to give hima kiss, but Phil didn't seem to notice. In his roller-coaster career Mickelsonhas taken plenty of punches to the solar plexus, but he has always come backfor more. This one will be harder to get over. The U.S. Open has become hisannual psychodrama, much as the Masters tortured Greg Norman. Mickelson has nowfinished second at the Open four times, including another final-hole loss, in1999. "I've never seen him like this," Amy whispered. "I think he'sin shock."

Finally, Philstirred, packing up and then beginning the slow trudge home. As he snakedthrough the locker room he passed numerous mementos of Winged Foot's gloriousU.S. Open history and the legends who have enjoyed starring roles. There was areproduction of a 1929 newspaper trumpeting Bobby Jones's victory. A 1959clipping celebrated Billy Casper's heroics. A photograph from 1984 showed abeaming Fuzzy Zoeller holding the winner's trophy aloft, and there was also apicture of Irwin, signed by the man himself: TO WINGED FOOT G.C. WHERE MYDREAMS WERE FULFILLED. Mickelson walked past all of this history without evennoticing, leaving the locker room deserted but for all of its ghosts.

SI.COM
For more photos from the U.S. Open and more from Alan Shipnuck, go toSI.com/golf.

The finish was stunning in its swiftness, and cruelty."I still am in shock that I did that," Mickelson said. "I AM SUCHAN IDIOT."
PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck Solomon/From the MetLife blimpDEAD MAN WALKING Mickelson strolled off the 15th green with a two-shot lead, unaware that his nightmare was about to begin.PHOTOFRED VUICHROUGH FINISH Trying to shape a three-iron around a tree at 18 on Sunday, Mickelson misfired and put himself in deeper trouble. PHOTOFRED VUICHLOOK WHAT I FOUND Thanks to a pair of spectacular pars on the last two holes, Ogilvy stole the trophy from a shaken Mickelson.