The U.S. Open is a boring golf tournament, run by boring people, won either by boring golfers or by creative golfers not afraid to be boring. The U.S. Open is also, by far, the game’s most significant test of golfing skill, run by some of the most knowledgeable people in the game, played on courses that are the most demanding in all of golfdom and often won by the most complete golfers who have ever played the game. Try on this foursome of multiple winners: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods.
It all makes you wonder about Phil Mickelson. He’s been talking lately about getting himself on that multiple-winners list. He’d look good there. But to do that, Mickelson—who turns 44 on Monday, June 16, the day after the final round of this year’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2—needs to join the club of the 39 living men who have won at least one U.S. Open. And when it comes to U.S. Opens, one is huge. (Just ask Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.) Especially when one would make Phil the sixth golfer to win the modern career Grand Slam.
How is it possible for one man to have finished second six times in this one tournament? Is it its name? Is it the demands the tournament puts on its winners? How will the report that he is part of an SEC-FBI insider-trading probe affect his golf? What do more ordinary golfers, like Andy North and Lee Janzen, each a two-time U.S. Open champ, know that Mickelson does not? What can we—and Phil—learn from all those near misses?
And will this be his year?
Sure, this could be his year. The U.S. Open is back at Pinehurst, where Phil won his first runner-up prize, in 1999, when it was just a novelty for him. Really, it was his best chance for victory of the 23 U.S. Opens in which he has played. Unless you consider Winged Foot 2006 his best chance. Or Merion ’13. Or Shinnecock ’04.
As for the two Bethpage seconds, they fall short of the true near-miss test. They were most remarkable for the fan-Phil relationship, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks the first time and of wife Amy’s breast-cancer diagnosis the second. He wasn’t one swing away from winning either one.
Of the six, Winged Foot is the one most remember best, and with the most painful clarity. That’s because he came to the 72nd hole on Sunday needing a par to win or a bogey to get into a playoff, only to make double with the whole world watching.
In discussions about Mickelson’s six silver medals, some Philologists refer to the Big Three: Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Merion. (Pinehurst 1999 serves as the sort of ultimate spring training game in this saga.) But one faction argues that Winged Foot was so deeply weird, it must be put in a category all its own. That’s because at Winged Foot, Mickelson was hitting the ball so erratically that it was a miracle he came to the final hole with any chance at all. The closing double was a cruel joke sent down from on high by Hogan himself: Do you really think you can play 71 holes like that and win the national open, fella?
At Pinehurst, Mickelson played something much closer to U.S. Open golf. Hogan, the greatest of all U.S. Open players, invented the phrase fairways and greens, if not by word than certainly by deed. Fairways and greens has characterized every golfer who has won the national championship. Hale Irwin (three wins), Retief Goosen (two), Lou Graham (one), all fairways-and-greeners. Through his career, in and out of Opens, that concept has often been foreign to Phil.
But at Pinehurst, Mickelson found his inner Hogan, or his version of it. On Sunday he hit a Hoganesque 12 of 14 fairways and a respectable 11 greens. He shot a boring U.S. Open round of even par, with 16 pars, a birdie and a bogey. He did almost everything right, yet it was not enough. Payne Stewart made an 18-footer on the last to win by a shot and avoid a playoff that Phil said he would not have attended anyway.
All was not lost. Far from it. Other golfers—Big Jack as an amateur, Watson as a kid pro—had lost before winning. Mickelson was 29 then, and Amy was at home, their first child due any day. Mickelson’s caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, was carrying a baby beeper, and Phil was ready to walk off the course the moment it beeped and fly off to a distant maternity ward.
That might sound like an enormous distraction, but for Mickelson it had the opposite effect. It was almost like giving a stimulant to a person with ADD. The scope of what was in store for him at home made the task at hand, playing world-class golf in a U.S. Open, relatively easy. With that in mind, weird as it might sound, could the SEC-FBI investigation help Mickelson focus this time around?
Lee Janzen, who won the 1993 Open at Baltusrol and the ’98 Open at Olympic, said in an interview last week that he suspected for many years that he had ADD and sometime in the past 10 years he confirmed it. He believes his friend Payne Stewart, the winner of the ’91 and the ’99 Opens, was “ADHD to the max.” He said he sees ADD traits in Phil, and he thinks it has helped Phil’s golf.
“The person with ADD gets bored quickly of the thing that doesn’t interest him but gets really, really focused on the thing that does,” Janzen said. And focus, Janzen said, is what he did for the 552 shots he took over the 144 holes he played in his Open wins. There was not a moment of letup. Mickelson, he said, is thisclose to doing that. “Just every once in a while,” Janzen said, “there’s a shot that’s like, Where was I on that one?”