Phil Mickelson is the King of the Close Call in major championship golf. His runner-up finish to Henrik Stenson, who dropped a closing 63 on him at Royal Troon, was Mickelson’s 11th runner-up finish in a major.
With a little better luck, we might have been talking about Mickelson’s pursuit of the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus last week. Tiger Woods snagged 14 titles and has been sidelined indefinitely. Mickelson has five majors—an astonishing total, just not as astonishing as Tiger’s 14.
Mickelson has won three Masters, one British and one PGA. By my conservative count, Mickelson definitely should have won four more majors and could have won nine more. I’ll bet Mickelson’s total for should-haves is higher than mine — more like nine (which would give him 14) — not that he’s going to admit to it.
There was no shame in losing at Royal Troon to a guy who shot 63 the last day, tying the lowest score in major history, especially when you shot the second-best score, 65, but as Mickelson said on TV moments after the finish, “It still stings.”
Here’s a ranking of Mickelson’s 15 closest calls in majors:
15. 2002 U.S. Open. After all the stories about Mickelson underperforming in majors, vocal New York fans got behind him in what turned into a career-long love affair. Tiger Woods simply outplayed Mickelson, who finished second. Mickelson played well on Sunday while shooting even par, two better than Woods, but still finished three behind Tiger.
14. 2011 British Open. Mickelson’s scintillating final-round front-nine 30 got him into contention at Royal St. George’s. He one-putted the first 10 greens then blew a two-footer at the 11th. His confidence apparently shaken, Mickelson couldn’t make anything happen after that. Darren Clarke looked like a player poised to stumble under pressure, but once Mickelson’s run stopped dead in the water and Dustin Johnson hit a shot out of bounds, Clarke coasted home, almost in disbelief. Mickelson and Johnson finished tied for second.
13. 2010 U.S. Open. Mickelson shot 66 in the second round, so making up seven shots on third-round leader Graeme McDowell on Sunday at Pebble Beach still seemed possible. But Mickelson struggled to a dismal 73, three-putting for par after driving the fourth green and making par at the par-5 6th even though he hit five-iron into the green for his second shot. “I’m glad it wasn’t a second,” Mickelson joked glumly after his fourth-place finish, three behind McDowell, who didn’t exactly light it up in the final round, either.
12. 2004 PGA Championship. Mickelson came to the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits needing a birdie to get into a playoff later won by Vijay Singh. Mickelson bogeyed the hole to fall into a tie for sixth. He’d finished first in the Masters, second in the U.S. Open and third in the British Open that year and later lamented that he was just five swings away from a Grand Slam. He was right. Sorta.
11. 2016 British Open. Mickelson shot a dazzling 8-under 63 in the opening round at Royal Troon, three shots better than the next best score. Henrik Stenson, who took a one-stroke lead over Mickelson into the final 18, dropped his own closing 63 on the field that left Mickelson, who shot a superb 65 in a thrilling duel, a runner-up by three strokes.
10. 2009 Masters. The pairing of Tiger Woods and Mickelson began the final round seven shots off the pace. Mickelson fired a sizzling 30 on the front and charged near the lead, then dumped a poor nine-iron shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th. He rallied but once again, the putter cost him. He missed a four-footer for eagle at the 15th and a five-footer for birdie at the 17th. He bogeyed 18 and finished three shots out of a playoff won by Angel Cabrera.
9. 2004 British Open. Mickelson led the Open at Troon after Todd Hamilton bogeyed the 10th hole in the final round but then Mickelson bogeyed the 13th, got passed by Hamilton and Ernie Els and despite a birdie at the 16th, came up one shot short of a playoff. When he needed a birdie at the par-3 17th, Mickelson missed the green.
8. 1999 U.S. Open. It was Payne Stewart’s winning par putt at the final hole that everyone remembers at Pinehurst. The deciding strokes happened at the par-3 17th, however. Mickelson hit it close, to eight feet, and Stewart hit it even closer. Mickelson missed, Stewart made and took the lead to the final hole. If Stewart doesn’t make a lengthy par putt, Mickelson at least would’ve had a shot in a playoff — although with Amy Mickelson about to give birth any minute and Mickelson’s vow that he’d be there for the big event, who knows if he would’ve stayed for it?
7. 2013 U.S. Open. Mickelson led or shared the lead after each of the first three rounds at Merion but let it get away Sunday. His errors included making double bogey at the par-3 third after hitting into the back bunker; three-putting for another double at the fifth; and trying to chip a pitching wedge on the 100-yard 13th hole instead of hitting a gap wedge. He made bogey from over the green in deep grass and, hitting gap wedge into the 15th, made another bogey. Those mistakes outweighed a 75-yard hole-out for eagle at the 10th. Another bogey at 18 left Mickelson two behind winner Justin Rose.
6. 2012 Masters. Major contenders don’t make triple bogeys. They just don’t. Mickelson did, twice in a week. He had plenty of time to make up for the 7 he posted at the 10th hole on Thursday but Sunday, in the chase for a fourth green jacket, Mickelson pulled his tee shot left at the par-3 4th hole. The ball caromed off a grandstand railing into some trees. It got ugly from there as he tried to play it, eventually dumped it into the bunker and took a 6. He tied for third, two shots out of a playoff between Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen, despite the two triples. If he instead made a pair of bogeys, he would have won by two. Outside of two holes, he played the best golf of anyone.
5. 2014 PGA Championship. Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler let this one slip away to Rory McIlroy, who was controversially waved up to hit on the final hole in the dark by PGA officials. For Mickelson, it came down to the par-4 16th hole. Instead of hitting a draw around the corner, he flared his fairway wood into the left rough and hit his second short of the green. He mis-hit a pitch that ran almost 10 feet past the hole, then missed the par putt, leaving McIlroy with a two-shot lead. Mickelson birdied 18 but Rory made par in near darkness for the win.
4. 2001 PGA Championship. David Toms famously laid up on the finishing hole, a long par 4 over water at Atlanta Athletic Club, and made the clutch par putt for the win. Mickelson chipped in from 35 feet to tie Toms for the lead at the 15th, a scintillating moment that made it appear that Mickelson might finally win his elusive first major. But then he three-putted the 16th hole from 50 feet.
3. 2004 U.S. Open. The New York crowds who had adopted Mickelson two years earlier at Bethpage were out in force, and he was the only player making a run Sunday when Shinnecock’s greens were absurdly firm. Mickelson put on an Arnold Palmer-like charge. He trailed Retief Goosen by three strokes with six holes to play then birdied three of the next four holes to take a one-shot lead. Goosen, meanwhile, made a series of amazing par saves as he clawed his way through the final nine. It all came down to the par-3 17th hole, where Mickelson hit into the bunker, blasted long, then three-putted for double bogey, as the crowd’s electricity vanished with Mickelson’s gaffe.
2. 2009 U.S. Open. Mickelson pulled into a share of the lead with Lucas Glover at Bethpage Black when he eagled the par-5 13th hole. He rode a wave of momentum and fan support to the closing holes, where he gassed putts from three feet at the 15th and six feet at the 17th. This one was there for the taking, but his short putting cost him.
1. 2006 U.S. Open. Mickelson had the lead going to the 72nd hole. A par wins the Open, a bogey gets him in a playoff. He flared his drive into the trees right. A bad decision off the tee? No. A day earlier, he’d played that hole driver-wedge. His mistake was attempting to hit a heroic recovery shot through a non-existent gap in the trees instead of chipping back to the fairway and relying on his wedge game — the best in golf — for the winning par or at least a bogey and a playoff. He made a double bogey 6 by going for the hero shot. Afterward, he said, “I am such an idiot.” When Colin Montgomerie bogeyed the final hole from the fairway, the Open was handed to Geoff Ogvily. Mickelson’s collapse more or less replaced Jean Van de Velde’s British Open finish as golf’s blueprint for a 72nd-hole fiasco.