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Why hasn't Phil Mickelson won the U.S. Open? He might not be boring enough

A huge slice off the tee and an ill-advised second shot led to a double-bogey on
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

A huge slice off the tee and an ill-advised second shot led to a double-bogey on 18 at Winged Foot in 2006.
Janzen didn’t cite examples, but the second shot on the last hole at Winged Foot, from the trampled left rough, was ill-considered. Mickelson went for a hero shot when all he needed to do was punch one down the fairway, pitch on from there and make a putt to win or two-putt for a playoff against Geoff Ogilvy.

Phil’s tee shot on the tiny par-3 13th at Merion on Sunday was a mistake too. If anything, he overthought that one. He made a routine shot much too difficult by taking too much club and trying to take something off it as a damp breeze ruffled his pant legs. Yes, this is a harsh analysis of one of the game’s great players. But this is a player who’s trying to join Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods on the career Grand Slam list. He’s being held to the highest standard.

When Mickelson came to Pine­hurst in 1999—looking for his first major title—he had not won in 16 months. His current fallow period is shorter; he won the British Open at Muirfield last July with a remarkable final-round 66. But since then, his best finish is a sixth at the Barclays last August. In April he missed the cut at the Masters. Last week at the Memorial he was 49th. Mickelson has said his struggles this year have had nothing to do with physical health or swing mechanics. His head has been another matter.

“Mentally, I’m just really soft right now—I’m having a hard time focusing on the shot,” he said in May after missing the cut at the Players. “I’ll go home and see if I can work on it.” With whom, if anybody, is not known.

In 2011, Mickelson acknowledged he had been working with a mental coach, Julie Elion. It’s not clear whether they’re still working together, but her influence seems to be lingering. For one thing, focus is one of Elion’s biggest themes (as it is for all these golf therapists), and on one occasion last year at Merion, Mackay could be heard giving this preshot directive to his boss: “C’mon, focus.”

The word truthfulness comes up often in Elion’s work with her clients. She implores them to be truthful with themselves, and variants of that word show up in Mickelson’s press sessions. At the Memorial he said, “I just think it’s easier to be honest and up front about what I’m feeling and going through than deny it, which is why, when I lose, I talk about how tough it is. Because it is. It’s challenging. I had such a down moment after losing at Merion. The same thing at Winged Foot.” In an interview last week Elion talked about the distinct challenges of the U.S. Open. “Some of my colleagues take the view, The U.S. Open is just another tournament,” Elion said. “I don’t think it is. I think its name does make it harder. I think the hype and the media make it harder. The golf course itself is harder. I want my clients to be truthful with themselves about the challenges they are facing. We want them to be emotionally in check. We want them to be really, really focused for five hours. If something goes wrong, take 30 seconds, analyze truthfully what happened and move on.”

All of this, of course, is easier said than done and more natural for some golfers ­(­Goosen) than others (Mickelson). And then there is ­Janzen, who says he did treat the U.S. Open as if it were just another tournament. Well, to each his own. Elion stresses the importance of a golfer being true to his personality type, and to himself. A challenge here is that Phil’s personality type does not fit the profile of your prototypical U.S. Open winner.

Since 1946, when the U.S. Open resumed after World War II, 47 golfers have won the tournament. Of those, four, at most, were obviously outgoing, charismatic individuals who could be buoyed by fan support: Arnold Palmer for sure, and Stewart, Jerry Pate and Ernie Els to lesser degrees. Each of the 43 others would have played the exact same shots if the gallery consisted of nothing but 17 men wearing white button-down shirts and sweat-stained USGA ties, and had a pull-cart for a caddie.

Phil comes out of the Arnold mold, and that has served him well at Augusta, where the desire to show off one’s creativity contributes mightily to winning play (see: Watson, Bubba). On the other hand, in U.S. Open golf, playing in a vacuum is ideal. Planning is valued, and Mickelson is one of the most meticulous planners there is. But fans by their nature are emotional, and emotion is the enemy of ­fairways-and-greens, well-planned golf. It’s better to block the fans out. The U.S. Open says to stay on the main road. Respect the law of the land.

Consider this common situation: A closer is working in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead, two outs and a full count. The crowd rises to its feet and cheers lustily for the game to end. The noise adds fuel to the pitcher’s next fastball. For the batter, the mental exercise of making contact or taking ball four has suddenly become far more difficult. The guy’s fastball has never been faster, and now there’s all this noise. Think how often those games end in a called strike or a swing and a miss.

Phil and Bubba are look-at-me closers, as was Arnold. That’s perfect for Augusta National. But U.S. Open winners are more like the dead-sober­ contact hitters who don’t strike out in that situation: a Rod Carew, a Tony Gwynn, maybe a Joe Mauer. They know that a walk or any batted ball will at least have a chance of keeping his team alive. They were (or are) masters of tuning out to tune in, no different than Hogan and Nicklaus and Woods.

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