In 1930, Bobby Jones arrived at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia attempting to complete the final leg of the Grand Slam. On the eve of that U.S. Amateur he received a telegram from a friend, written in Greek: E tan e epi tas. This was something mothers in ancient Sparta told their sons as they carried their shields to battle: "With it, or on it."
This is an article from the June 24, 2013 issue
That, on a lesser scale, is the brutal reality of tournament golf at the highest level—a player takes into combat 14 clubs, and they will lift him to triumph or bury him. It took Jones two inches of corn liquor to soothe his nerves after a tournament round, and the crushing pressure chased him from the game at 28, less than two months after he completed the Slam. At the same age Phil Mickelson was also feeling the weight of great expectations. He was supposed to be the Next Nicklaus, but an inability to get it done at major championships had saddled him with a reputation as an extravagantly talented underachiever.
At 29, Mickelson suffered his first heartbreak at the U.S. Open, trumped on the 72nd hole by Payne Stewart. At 32 he finished second again, finding himself on the wrong side of history as Tiger Woods won the 2002 Open to complete a run of epic dominance. Mickelson finally broke through at the '04 Masters, but two months later he kicked away a golden chance to get halfway to his own Grand Slam, three-putting from five feet on the 71st hole at Shinnecock Hills. His worst Open meltdown came in '06: a slapstick double bogey on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot, when he drove his ball off a corporate tent and then doinked a tree. A record fifth runner-up finish befell him in '09 when he bogeyed two of the final four holes at Bethpage.
Mickelson's star-crossed career is a reminder that the U.S. Open is not a golf tournament, it's a personality test. It reveals as much about a man's mental makeup as it does his golf game. The relentless difficulty of the course setup pushes players to the breaking point—mentally, physically, spiritually—which is why golf's most revered champions have been defined by their Open conquests, beginning with Jones, who won four. Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus claimed the same number, while Woods has snagged three, so far.
Justin Rose joined the pantheon at last week's 113th U.S. Open with a gritty, pressure-proof performance at Merion. Whatever else he does during his upwardly mobile career, Rose's defining stretch will almost surely be the two perfect shots he played on the 72nd hole, locking up the par that pushed this tournament beyond Mickelson's grasp. Rose hit his drive four paces from the plaque that commemorates Hogan's famous one-iron on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open, golf's most mythologized performance. (Woods's win in 2008 on a broken leg is a close second. Or is it Arnold Palmer's comeback in 1960? Maybe it's Francis Ouimet's rags-to-riches triumph in 1913.) "It's hard not to play Merion and envision yourself hitting the shot that Hogan did," Rose said. "And even in the moment today, that was not lost on me."
Mickelson was left with a familiar emptiness after letting another Open slip away. "This one's probably the toughest for me," he said on Sunday evening, with glassy eyes, "because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak."
Only one person is truly qualified to psychoanalyze Mickelson's serial crack-ups, and he speaks from the grave. Sam Snead is the Tour's official alltime leader in victories, but he lacked the discipline and course-management skills to cope with the Open. His signature blowup came in 1939, at Philadelphia Country Club, when he triple-bogeyed a waterless 72nd hole to finish two shots out of a playoff. "I'll tell you about these Opens," Snead once said. "They get tougher and tougher on the mental side. You keep remembering the mistakes you made in the past that cost you an Open title. I guess you keep trying too hard."
Mickelson is a modern-day Snead, minus the hillbilly twang. They are two of the most blessed natural talents ever to touch a club, and like the Slammer before him, Lefty has three Masters victories on the wide-open canvas of Augusta, which allows for artistic expression. But a freewheeling style is ill-suited to the Open, with its skinny fairways and gnarly rough. Mickelson believed deeply that Merion offered a rare opportunity. It was hosting its first Open in 32 years, and even retrofitted for the modern game, it played less than 7,000 yards, allowing Mickelson to drop the most unreliable club in his bag—the driver—in favor of a fifth wedge. More than that, Mickelson is a golf romantic, and to perform his best he has to fall in love with a course. It explains his success at Augusta and Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines, the course he grew up playing. The great Jazz Age course designer A.W. Tillinghast once described Merion as a "coy but flirtatious maiden with mocking eyes flashing at you from over her fan," and Mickelson fell hard. During a scouting trip the week before the Open, he took time to admire the old black-and-white photos in the clubhouse and leaf through the vast historical archives.
Mickelson felt the good vibes during the first round, shooting a three-under-par 67 that propelled him into the lead and burnished his iconoclastic image. The day before, golf's highest-profile family man was at home in California for the eighth-grade graduation of his daughter Amanda, and he then flew overnight to Philly, touching down at 3:30 a.m., less than four hours before his tee time. Mickelson didn't feel disadvantaged because, he says, "I think that mental preparation is every bit as important as physical, and I was able to take the time on the plane to read my notes, study, relive the golf course, go through how I was going to play each hole, where the pins were, where I want to miss it, where I want to be, study the green charts. It gave me a great few hours to get mentally prepared."
Rose, a 32-year-old golfing gentleman by way of London, opened with a little-noticed 71 that was a monument to his focus. Before the tournament Rose texted his caddie, Mark Fulcher, a photo of a tunnel as a reminder of the need to stick to their game plan. He then proceeded to shake off five bogeys and claw his way into the mix.
On Friday, Mickelson was unnerved by the extreme hole locations the USGA used to help the old girl maintain her reputation. He didn't make a birdie until the final hole, grinding out a 72. Rose putted beautifully en route to a 69 that left him one stroke off Mickelson's lead. He, too, was smitten with Merion. Noting the ebb and flow of the routing, he quoted a maxim popular among the club's caddies: "The first six holes are drama, the second six are comedy, and the last six holes are tragedy."
Mickelson kept his lead on Saturday with a hard-fought 70, putting him at one under, the only player below par. (Rose was two back.) The tournament was Phil's to lose, and it would be a solitary pursuit as his wife, Amy, stayed home to tend to Amanda's siblings, Evan and Sophia, both of whom were under the weather. Speaking by phone, she predicted her college sweetheart would have a restless night. "He doesn't sleep much the week of majors—he can't turn off his brain," said Amy. "He'll lie there doing mental rehearsals of the next day's round." Sure enough, Phil sent me a text at 3:34 a.m. apologizing for having made a biting (but undeniably funny) crack on Saturday evening: "I won't be such a smart ass next time," Mickelson wrote. "Even though it's against my nature."
Mickelson likes to come off as the brightest guy in the room, which is why his peers long ago tagged him with the sardonic nickname Genius. He has a side business designing golf courses, and his critical eye began his undoing in the final round. After lipping out birdie putts on the first two holes, his mood further soured when he arrived at the tee of the downhill par-3 3rd, which was playing 266 yards, into the fan. He smoked a three-wood that landed on the green but skittered into an awkward lie on the edge of a bunker. A chip, a three putt and a double bogey followed. Mickelson was still steaming as he came off the 4th tee, and when he spied Mike Davis, he barked at the USGA executive director, saying the 3rd hole was unfairly long. Jack Nicklaus used to love hearing competitors complain about the setup because it meant they were already beaten mentally. Davis, in an interview, claimed that a different wind had been forecast for Sunday. "Maybe Phil was right," he said. "In that wind, maybe it was too long." But the larger point is that anyone who wants to win an Open has to use his energy to save par, not gripe about the course. Mickelson made another brutal double bogey at the 5th, when he played out of a hazard, then three-putted again. The composure and patience that had carried him the preceding three days were wavering.
But Mickelson has always been able to take a punch, and he steadied himself with four straight pars. Then on the par-4 10th he holed a 75-yard approach for an eagle that vaulted him into the lead. Phil the Thrill was back, and Merion fairly shook. Rose heard the roars moments after three-putting the 11th hole. He has his own kind of hard-won resilience—after turning pro at 17, he missed 21 straight cuts, turning himself into chum for the circling British press. He was 22 when his father, Ken, died of leukemia. Rose soldiered on and slowly, tenaciously built himself into a world-class player, aided over the last four years by Sean Foley, better known as Woods's swing coach. Rose responded to Mickelson's eagle by birdieing the next two holes to reclaim the lead. Onions.
On the petite par-3 13th Mickelson took an aggressive line off the tee and jacked a lob wedge over the green. Bogey. At the 15th he made a tentative swing with a gap wedge—he would later say he chose the wrong club, a whopping mental blunder—spinning his approach off the green and taking another bogey. At the 16th Mickelson faced a benign 10-footer for birdie, but he misread the line, though in his telling, "The darn thing stopped breaking." Needing to birdie the unbirdieable 18th, Mickelson fanned his drive deep into the rough. The only consolation was that it was not quite as off-line as the final, doomed drive at Winged Foot.
Rose's four-round total of 281 was one stroke higher than Lee Trevino's tally from 1971, when he beat Nicklaus in a playoff, and six shots fewer than Hogan needed to force a playoff. Rose pointed to the heavens after his textbook par on the closing hole. Later, fighting back tears, he said, "My dad sacrificed a lot for me. He was instrumental in my golf from an early age. He will be smiling down from up there."
Leaving the grounds at the end of a wrenching Father's Day, Phil Mickelson Sr. talked about how proud he was of his son. "He has a lot of resiliency," he said. "No matter how many times he gets his heart broken, he keeps throwing himself into the fray."
It remains to be seen how long Mickelson will be haunted by Merion, populated as it is by so many old ghosts. Back in 1930, Big Bob Jones was walking the front nine as his son closed in on the Grand Slam. He asked a spectator the score and was told that Bobby was about to go 9 up with 14 to play. Big Bob then broke into a song that 83 years later could serve as an epitaph for Mickelson and his unfulfilled pursuit of the U.S. Open: "There's a long, long trail a-winding/Into the land of my dreams."
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