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

At Merion last year, Phil made three bogies in the final six holes.
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated
At Merion last year, Phil made three bogies in the final six holes.

Bethpage 2002 was a lovefest between the spectators and a golfer (Phil) not afraid to make eye or even physical contact. Nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks emotions were raw, human interaction never seemed more important, and Phil, a natural people person, stepped into the void. Serenaded all the way around, he celebrated his 32nd birthday by shooting an ­even-par 70 in the opening round. At the end of the day he trailed the leader—Woods, of course—by three. Tiger was at the height of his powers then, and his golf came out as if from a machine. He was like the great Yankees teams of that era, and he was more respected than loved. Phil, who was still looking for his first World Series ring (that is, a major), was more like the Brooklyn Dodgers. The New Yorkers embraced Phil, and he played for them (among others). It might have helped his golf but only to a point. Woods played nearly flawless fairways-and-greens golf for four days, and Phil finished second, three shots behind, just where he was when he bit into his birthday cake on Thursday night.

Two years later at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson trailed Goosen by two through three rounds. The Sunday conditions were difficult. It was windy, cloudless and warm, and the USGA had cut the greens down to nothing. At times the players felt they were putting on pavement. Mickelson played a superb round of Sunday U.S. Open golf—71—almost eight shots better than the average score that day.

But on the par-3 17th, with the championship well within his grasp and a swelling and loud crowd right there, his planning went awry. Mickelson’s second shot, from a greenside bunker, is one he’d love to have back. It left him with a downhill six-footer for par. He made double.

What happened there, internally? Was the underlying problem mounting frustration with the conditions? Trying too hard for the buzzing crowd? Over­excitement about the prospect of winning a U.S. Open? It’s unlikely even Phil really knows. One of Janzen’s points is that Phil does not have to play perfect golf to win a U.S. Open. But he needs to ask himself, on every shot, Am I all in?

And then there’s Janzen’s brother-in-arms, Andy North, who won his U.S. Opens in 1978 at Cherry Hills and in ’85 at Oakland Hills. The veteran ESPN golf analyst has a take on U.S. Open golf and Phil so different from Janzen’s you can’t believe these two are watching the same player. Janzen thinks winning the British Open will make it harder for Mickelson to win the U.S. Open, because of the added pressure of chasing the career Grand Slam. North says the true greats welcome such pressure and that the extra layer of meaning won’t inhibit Mickelson. While Janzen treated the U.S. Open like an ordinary tournament, North says he felt he had to treat the Open as a sui generis championship unlike any other.

He was asked whether he let fans in.

“You know, in my two wins, I don’t remember any crowd noise,” North said, before noting one exception. “The U.S. Open fit my mentality, which was grind and grind and grind, grind forever. The winners of U.S. Opens are often guys who are comfortable being boring, comfortable not showing off.”

Maybe you’re thinking: That doesn’t sound like Phil.

“It’s becoming Phil,” North said.

Each of these two-time Open winners was asked if they had any words of wisdom for a guy looking to win his first Open.

“Play with peace,” said Janzen.

“Don’t follow a bad shot with a bad shot,” said North.

They both think Phil Mickelson’s chances of winning the U.S. Open this year at Pine­hurst, one day short of 44, are better than they have ever been. He’s older and wiser. After 23 ­attempts and six seconds, he has an understanding of what the U.S. Open demands of its winners. Janzen and North would happily welcome him to the club. They know what we know: The man has paid his dues.

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