Phil Mickelson’s drive on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open went right over my head, clanging off a hospitality tent and expiring in Winged Foot’s tangled rough about 50 feet from where I was standing. What I remember about Phil’s arrival on the scene, along with his caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay, was how fast both were moving. Too fast. I had been interviewing Rick Smith, Phil’s then-swing coach, and we stood to the side of all the commotion as his protégé—needing a par to win or a bogey to force a playoff—tried to carve a 3-iron around a tree toward the green.
Phil pushed it, and the ball hit squarely on the trunk. The report was as loud as gunfire. Smith went ashen and could form no more words. Just then, Mike Lupica, the newspaper columnist, approached Smith and huffed, “He’s going to have a hard time making 5 from there!” I was impressed that Smith didn’t slug him, but Lupica was right. Phil, of course, carded a double-bogey 6.
Two years earlier, I’d been standing behind the 16th green at Shinnecock Hills as Phil arrived. I was tapped on the shoulder—a large dude with an earpiece asked me to make room “for the Mayor.” Rudy Giuliani wormed his way next to me. Three holes earlier, Phil had been down three strokes to Retief Goosen, but when Lefty rolled in an 8-footer on 16, he suddenly had the lead. Hizzoner pumped his fist wildly, and I asked him why he was rooting for Phil. “He’s an honorary New Yorker,” Giuliani said. “He never gives up.” Phil promptly doubled the 17th to lose to Goosen.
At the 1999 U.S. Open, at Pinehurst, I was standing behind the final green as Payne Stewart lined up his putt. His wife, Tracey, stood directly in front of me. Phil’s wife, Amy, was on the other side of the country, trying to slow down her contractions, as their first child was due any moment, which left Bones carrying the most famous beeper in golf history. When Payne’s putt went in, there was a wall of noise, but I could still hear Tracey’s elated scream.
At Merion, in 2013, after Phil had let another Open slip through his grasp, I was in a vast crowd, bound for the press room to type his requiem while all around me glum fans headed for the exits. I spotted Phil Mickelson, Sr., and weaved my way to his side. It was Father’s Day, and he remained deeply proud of his son. “He has a lot of resiliency,” Phil, Sr. told me. “No matter how many times he gets his heart broken, he keeps throwing himself into the fray.”
Time marches on. Phil will celebrate his 47th birthday on Friday this year at Erin Hills, although he might not be there. Amanda, the daughter who was born the day after Stewart’s putt, is giving a commencement speech at her high graduation in Southern California, which presently coincides with the first round of the Open. Phil won’t miss it, so unless the school changes the schedule, his U.S Open quest will be deferred a year. I chatted with Amanda at this year’s Masters—she’s a brainy, self-possessed young woman who’s planning a double major in Egyptology and philosophy. “Really practical fields for the real world,” she said with a laugh. Is Dad supportive? “Very much so,” Amanda said. “If anyone believes in following your passions, it’s him.”
The U.S. Open is the only thing missing for a man who has everything. Until Mickelson wins one, we are left with more haunting memories. After his collapse at Winged Foot, Phil had retreated to the clubhouse. I found him sitting at his upstairs locker, motionless, staring into space with his head resting wearily in his hands. Amy came by to give him a kiss, but Phil didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve never seen him like this,” she whispered. “I think he’s in shock.” Finally, Phil stirred, packing up his belongings and beginning the trudge home.
As he snaked through the locker room, he passed numerous mementos of Winged Foot’s glorious U.S. Open history. There was a reproduction of a 1929 newspaper trumpeting Bobby Jones’s victory. A 1959 clipping celebrated Billy Casper’s heroics. A photo from 1984 showed a beaming Fuzzy Zoeller hoisting the winner’s trophy. And there was a picture of Hale Irwin enjoying his victory in 1974, signed by the man himself: TO WINGED FOOT G.C. WHERE MY DREAMS WERE FULFILLED.
Mickelson walked past all of this history without even noticing, leaving the locker room deserted but for its ghosts.