FOR 69 holes of last week's U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson did a pretty good Tiger Woods impersonation. For most of a wild final round at Winged Foot Golf Club, he fought off a handful of world-class players, tiptoeing to the precipice of so much history. With a victory Mickelson would join Woods (2000), Jack Nicklaus (1971-72) and Ben Hogan (1953) as the fourth player to win three consecutive majors in the modern era. (Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930 came before the Masters had been founded and included the U.S. and British Amateurs.) A win at Winged Foot would propel Mickelson to next month's British Open with a chance to do the unthinkable: match Woods's greatest feat, the Tiger Slam, which is to hold the titles of all four major championships spread across two seasons. More immediate, a victory at the Open would leave no doubt that Phil had surpassed Tiger as the game's dominant player. But on Sunday, Mickelson shrank from the immensity of the opportunity, handing an improbable victory to Australia's Geoff Ogilvy.
Mickelson led by two after 15 holes and arrived at the 18th a shot ahead of Ogilvy, but on the tee of the 450-yard par-4 he made one of the worst swings of his career, a push-slice that bounced off a hospitality tent miles left of the fairway. What followed was a sequence of mistakes that will haunt Mickelson for the rest of his life, if not longer. Trying to cut a three-iron around a tree he instead doinked its trunk, the ball rolling back at him, mockingly. On the reload Mickelson overcooked another cut shot, flying it into a buried lie in the front left greenside bunker, which left him an impossible play to a back right pin. Minutes earlier he was poised to make history. Now he needed to get up and down just to force an 18-hole playoff. Mickelson's long bunker shot came out hot and trickled off the green, and his ensuing chip for bogey--and salvation--never had a chance.
The finish was stunning in its swiftness, and cruelty. Mickelson hid out in the scorers' area trying to collect himself; his wife, Amy, draped an arm around his shoulders and whispered in his ear. When Phil finally emerged, his eyes were red and watery and he was still struggling to make sense of what had occurred. "I still am in shock that I did that," he said. "I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot. I can't believe I couldn't par the last hole. It really stings."
It is a familiar hurt. The tie for second marked the 21st time that Mickelson had finished seventh or better at a major. Since reinventing himself at the start of 2004 he has 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 to double bogey the 71st hole. Four weeks later, at the British Open, Mickelson held the lead with seven holes to play only to let it get away. But neither of those 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's self-immolation threw into sharp relief the key difference between him and Woods. Tiger is 10 for 10 protecting a 54-hole lead in a major. When it matters most his decision making and execution are flawless. Mickelson is clearly still a work in progress, and knowing this may explain Woods's peevishness last week when pressed about Phil. Asked at his Tuesday press conference about the state of their rivalry, Woods refused to give Mickelson his due, merely lumping him with other would-be contenders. "You have runs where Ernie was there for a little bit, then Vijay, Goose," Woods said, "and now Phil." A win at Winged Foot would have dramatically changed the conversation, but now Mickelson 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 his first tournament since the death of his father, Earl, on May 3, and Tiger wanted to honor his memory. "I'm here to compete and play and try to win this championship," he said. "I know that Dad would still want me to grind it and give it my best, and that's what I always do. That's what I will certainly try to do this week."
It took three holes for it to be clear that Woods would not be able to summon his usual passion. 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 hole Woods's 45-foot birdie putt came up 10 feet short, resulting in a third straight bogey. This most imperious of competitors, who has conjured so much awe, now elicited an entirely foreign emotion: pity. Woods continued to struggle to find his speed on the greens and hit only three fairways en route to a six-over 76.
On his fifth hole (number 14) of the second round he chunked a chip from the rough and blew another short putt to make double bogey--and all the fight seemed to drain out of him. Woods bogeyed his final two holes to shoot another 76, missing the cut by three strokes. It was his first weekend off at a major since turning pro in 1997, a span of 39 consecutive made cuts, which tied Nicklaus's alltime record.
With Woods off the premises Mickelson imposed his will on the tournament on Saturday, playing the back nine in two under to charge into a tie for the lead. Lurking one stroke back was the 29-year-old Ogilvy, who has become a fixture on Tour leader boards in the last year and a half. The wiry Australian hits it a ton off the tee with his effortless swing and owns one of the most creative, and reliable, short games in golf. His physical gifts have always been apparent. He was considered a can't-miss prospect as far back as 1999, when he was the Australian tour's rookie of the year at 22. But in two ensuing seasons in Europe, and on the PGA Tour beginning in 2001, Ogilvy displayed a vexing inability to win.
His self-lacerating nature was mostly to blame, and his frustrations often led to on-course temper tantrums. "It was pretty embarrassing what I said to myself," Ogilvy said earlier this year. "I would call [myself] useless and 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 earlier this year he won the Match Play Championship, along the way dusting major champions Michael Campbell, Mike Weir, Tom Lehman and Davis Love III.
Ogilvy can still run 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. Ogilvy failed to make birdie and then spent the better part of the next two holes in Squirrel's ear, complaining about the advice. Not coincidentally, Ogilvy bogeyed both holes. About this time his wife, Juli, could be found pacing in front of the clubhouse. She had been watching the NBC broadcast and couldn't take listening to Johnny Miller continue to browbeat her husband about the dustup. "Of course they're going to have disagreements," Juli said of her husband and his caddie. "It's like a marriage. They've been together seven years."