OAKMONT, Pa. – Winged Foot in 2006 was the most disappointing.
Or was it Merion in 2013?
Battle-scarred Phil Mickelson met the media at Oakmont on Wednesday, on the eve of the 116th U.S. Open, and the popular six-time runner-up in this tournament said the 2006 edition, when he bonked his drive off a hospitality tent and double-bogeyed the last hole, was the worst.
But then he changed his answer.
“My career is built on failure,” Mickelson said, eliciting laughter. A long-awaited success this week “would mean the world,” he added, since it would complete the career grand slam. He said he’s playing well and putting well after finishing tied for second at the FedEx St. Jude last weekend, his fifth top-five finish this year. He said he hopes the USGA will make Oakmont fast and fiery, since he has the experience to handle it.
“I would like to see it go over that edge,” Mickelson said, “because I feel like I've learned how to play that style of golf.”
Inevitably, though, the questions for Mickelson turned to his winless U.S. Open odyssey. This will be his 26th start in this event, and he is one of only four players to have participated in the 1994 and 2007 U.S. Opens at Oakmont. He’s old enough to remember when the place had trees.
“Can’t dwell on the past,” he said, but for the media, he did. (He also answered questions about being part of an insider-trading investigation.)
Mickelson has finished second or T2 behind two sleeves of winners: Payne Stewart (Pinehurst, 1999); Tiger Woods (Bethpage, 2002); Retief Goosen (Shinnecock, 2004); Geoff Ogilvy (Winged Foot, 2006); Lucas Glover (Bethpage again, 2009); and Justin Rose (Merion, 2013). We’ve had to look through our fingers at some of his efforts to arrive at the trophy.
But he’s here, trying, again. Mickelson goes off Oakmont’s 10th tee with Rose and Henrik Stenson at 2:09 ET Thursday.
It’s been an eventful week already. Mickelson practiced at the course Monday, flew home to San Diego to attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation on Tuesday, slept in Wednesday, and came to the interview room just after lunch. He said, like seemingly every year, that Oakmont presents his best chance to win so far. He said the brutally hard 477-yard ninth hole is a par-4 in name only, and that because of the evil lurking around the 17th green he won’t go for the driveable par-4 hole no matter where the USGA’s Mike Davis puts the tees. He said it’s clear what’s left on his to-do list.
“I could BS you and tell you I don't think about it,” Mickelson said. “No, I think about it all the time. This is the tournament I want to win the most to complete the four majors. There's no question.”
No, the only question is which one of his second-place finishes has hurt the most. Just as the Eskimos are said to have words for different snow, Mickelson, who will turn 46 on Thursday, assigns subtle qualifiers to his U.S. Open would-haves, should-haves and could-haves.
His gaffe at Winged Foot in ’06 was disappointing, he said, because he was so close—just one par away from victory. “You know, people talk about the tee shot,” he said. “To me, the second shot, all I had to do is start that three-iron a little bit further right, miss the tree, and I'm up by the green. And that week my short game was the best it's been in my career.”
Five questions later, he reconsidered. Because he was just one hole away, his 2006 loss, he said, was actually his “most heartbreaking.”
“The 2013 U.S. Open, I think, is actually my biggest disappointment because I was playing so well,” he said. “I was leading. I had an opportunity to win at the back nine where I was leading, and I lost the U.S. Open. And the following week, I was very difficult to be around.”
The following month he won the British Open.
“To have my greatest high within a month of having the greatest low of my career is, I think, my biggest accomplishment,” Mickelson said.
Those highs and lows aren’t over yet. Mickelson is third on the latest Ryder Cup points list, behind only Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. Tiger can be a vice-captain; Phil, who hasn’t won since that 2013 British Open but has flirted with victories at Palm Desert, Pebble Beach, Doral, Quail Hollow and Memphis this year, is on track to make his 11th straight team.
Only twice has he been on a team that won. Never has he been part of a winning U.S. Open campaign, but you know what they say: 26th time’s a charm. And as Mickelson himself reminds, his career is built on failure.
Did Susan Lucci win her Emmy? Yes—after her 19th nomination.
Did Charlie Brown kick the football? According to a Peanuts fan page, he went to the hospital in 1979, and Lucy promised she’d stop pulling the ball away if he just got better. He did, and she kept her promise.
In the strip from Aug. 2, 1979, Lucy finally left the ball for Charlie to kick; he missed and kicked her hand, instead. “You blockhead!” she said.
“I’m such an idiot,” Mickelson said at Winged Foot.
The quest for the Holy Grail continues.