CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Much has been made of Phil Mickelson's failure to win the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond over the weekend, what with the way he bogeyed the 18th hole in regulation (missed his drive right) and in the playoff (missed left, into the reeds). That final-hole, wide-left tee shot is all too familiar from the 2004 Ryder Cup and the 2006 U.S. Open, the unmistakable sign of a "Mickelson meltdown," an alliteratively appealing term that's permeated pop culture.
"My man is melting down like Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot," Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) said in a recent episode of HBO's hit series "Entourage." The Scottish Open finish was captioned on Monday by one national TV network as, "Mickelson's Pre-British Open Meltdown."
But for all the attention devoted to his fickle driver, Mickelson's short game lost him the tournament to Gregory Havret, an unheralded Frenchman.
Start with the 371-yard, par-4 14th hole. As is his wont, Mickelson tried to drive the green, hitting his war club hole-high but in the right rough. No crime in that. He caught a great lie, according to the TV wags, but inexplicably fluffed his second shot short of the green. Now with a less-than-perfect lie, he gouged his third shot about 10 feet short of the pin and missed the putt. Bogey. Since when does Phil Mickelson take four to get down from there? He is not Fred Funk; his strength has never been playing from the fairways. His strength is his short game. Or it's supposed to be.
The 14th-hole foozle was a preview of things to come, namely his airmailed third shot on the 18th hole. Leading by a stroke on the last hole of regulation, Mickelson had all kinds of green to work with on his pitch from just in front of the green. He could have bumped his ball back to the hole location with a less lofted club, could have thrown it high in the air with a lob wedge, or anything in between. For a guy who got up-and-down the day before despite being submerged in a water hazard, it seemed like a relatively easy shot.
Until he hit it. Trying to fly it over a ridge in front of the hole, Mickelson swung too hard and watched his ball roll some 20 feet past the pin, almost off the back of the green. The missed par putt was not caused by the slightly pulled drive into the rough, it was caused by a lackluster third shot. The bogey and ultimately the overtime defeat recalled Mickelson's loss to Charles Howell III at Riviera earlier this year. Mickelson looked out of sorts and let a less-than-impossible up-and-down get the better of him on the 72nd hole. He ultimately lost in extra holes.
Forget about the driver. Notwithstanding Mickelson's victory in the Players in May, no one changes his swing overnight without a few hiccups, and he's made clearly visible improvements under Butch Harmon. One shot into the reeds on a Sunday afternoon in Scotland doesn't invalidate the changes.
This is about touch, the first thing to go when you're nervous, and Mickelson looked nervous at Loch Lomond. It's hard to know how that's possible for a Hall of Fame shoe-in who's won 30 tournaments, including three majors, but we know the look. We are all too familiar with the three stages of Mickelson Meltdown: the wide-eyed, fight-or-flight Phil; the hand-on-the-head Phil; and finally, cue violins, the ashen (but still smilin') I-can't-believe-I-did-that Phil.
Mickelson has wrestled so many demons so publicly that he ought to be wearing WWE-issue tights and a mask. At first it was that he couldn't win the big one. Then he won three big ones, but all those defeats snatched from the jaws of victory left a psychic wound that two green jackets and a Wannamaker trophy could only salve for a limited time. Inevitably there would be more disappointment. That's golf. It would kick Mickelson in the stomach again, make him remember again all those tournaments he could've, should've, would've won.
In other words, for all the attention paid to Winged Foot, it's possible that the frightful disaster was underplayed. Mickelson's deer-in-the-headlights look at Riviera and Loch Lomond would be easier to miss were it not for his cocksure swagger seemingly every other waking moment. He was all confidence as he won at Sawgrass, where Sean O'Hair was lauded for attacking the pin on the penultimate hole even though his ball bounced past it and into the water.
It would have been interesting had O'Hair played it safe and made a par on 17. A two-stroke lead is nothing on an 18th hole that's mostly water, and Mickelson looks the most nervous when a tournament is his to lose, and with a pursuer who won't go away quietly. (After wielding a utility club to find the fairway, he still came within inches of depositing his second shot into the water on the left, as Adam Scott did a few years ago.)
What will Phil do next? Ford may have far bigger problems than its former pitchman, but never has an advertising campaign been more relevant. In the Wednesday pro-am a few weeks ago, Mickelson split nearly every fairway on the back nine at Congressional Country Club. He looked as solid as ever, ready to contend and enjoy a huge remainder of the season and contend for Player of the Year. Over the next 48 hours he shot 74-73 and missed the cut by three.
He may win his first British Open or he may miss the cut at Carnoustie, and it's not his swing, his injured left wrist or the course set-up that makes this week so unpredictable. It's Phil's frame of mind. That's the danger of Winged Foot, or any of golf's most sickening disappointments. They never really go away.