Phil Mickelson stood on the penultimate hole of the Players Championship on Sunday, passing his pitching wedge and 9-iron back and forth to his caddie, Jim Mackay. After several minutes of discussion, Mickelson chose the wedge, launched his tee shot into the breeze, and watched his ball land short of the island green and in a bunker.
Should have hit the 9-iron.
In a week where everything seemed lined up for Mickelson (course knowledge, good vibes from winning a year ago, no Tiger), he remained on the edge of contention but never made a move. With intermittent bogeys every round and lots of missed putts, Mickelson could never put together 18 good holes. After three days that were just a few shots from great, he had an uneven final round that took 78 shots and included two double-bogeys. He finished four over for the tournament, tied for 21st.
Mickelson's season to date has been marked by stretches of inconsistency, his win at Riviera in February notwithstanding. The wobbles have mostly shown up in his putting stroke, which had been dependable during his run of three major championships from 2004-2006 but has deserted him of late. He changed putters during the Players Championship and still seemed fooled.
"I putted terribly from short range," Mickelson said.
Not exactly a winning formula going into next month's United States Open at Torrey Pines, even if it is in Mickelson's backyard.
While Mickelson has spent just over a year incorporating changes to his full swing with Butch Harmon, his short game seems to have suffered.
At the Masters last month, Mickelson looked unsure on greens he had twice conquered. One morning during the tournament, he drove up to the Augusta National clubhouse, opened the trunk and pulled out a silver putting contraption given to him by Dave Pelz, his short-game guru. There was no doubt Mickelson was searching.
The hunt continued at the windswept TPC Sawgrass, where Mickelson lacked precision with his scoring club. Battling a cold during the championship didn't help his cause, either.
"I thought if I had a good back side I might have a chance," Mickelson said after the final round. "I thought some players might come back a little more than they did. I ended up missing a short birdie putt on 11 that kind of took a lot of momentum out of me because that would have given me a bit of a boost, got me to one under for the tournament. Unfortunately, it didn't get any better from there."
As Sergio Garcia and Paul Goydos battled into the gloaming, Mickelson waited in the scoring area for them to finish. As the defending champion, it would be his job to award the crystal to the 2008 champ.
A year ago, the scene at the scoring area had been completely different. Mickelson had won his first tournament under the tutelage of Harmon, and the player and the coach exchanged a hug. Mickelson grabbed a pen and signed the 18th flag for Harmon: "Butch, the first of many."
Mickelson seemed on the verge of scooping up handfuls of trophies, especially majors. Since then, though, he has won just twice on the PGA Tour, none of them majors. His momentum after the 2007 Players Championship was broken when he injured his wrist practicing for last year's United States Open at Oakmont, causing him to withdraw from the Memorial and miss three straight cuts.
He battled back to take down Tiger Woods at the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, but he has been outshined by Woods and a handful of twentysomethings since.
One of those twentysomethings, Garcia, stood at the trophy ceremony Sunday and thanked Woods for not being at the tournament and giving him a chance to win. Mickelson smiled. With Woods on the mend, Mickelson was easily the championship's leading man.
But the putts kept veering away from the hole, and Mickelson's scores kept climbing.
At some point this season maybe at Torrey Pines, maybe later Mickelson may find the cure for his putting woes and hoist another big trophy.
If history has taught us anything, few golfers are better at getting off the mat after being knocked down.