Losing is no fun — or so the losers tell me — but do you notice how TV keeps running those blooper reels and lowlight segments? Last Saturday, for example, they showed this endless loop of Phil Mickelson hitting a wedge shot to the 13th green at Torrey Pines South. The ball would land on the front of the green, spin back and roll down a steep bank to the feet of the chagrined golfer, who would then step over to his bag and clean the club face with a towel. They aired this once, twice, three times, until I finally got exasperated and said, “Enough with the replays!” At which point a colleague pointed out, “No, it’s live.”
It turned out I was watching Mickelson make a quadruple-bogey 9. That little indiscretion, captured for posterity, took the winner of 34 PGA Tour titles out of contention for his first U.S. Open title as effectively as if he had trudged back down past the 13th tee and jumped off the cliff.
For a less-protracted example of loserdom, I offer the second-round screwup of Adam Scott. The world’s third-ranked player was three over par when he missed a short birdie putt on the 18th green, and he would have stayed that way if he hadn’t tried to tap it in from 10 inches while wobbling on one foot. When Scott’s ball spun out, the shocked gasp-groan of the grandstand crowd was loud enough to send crows flying off the rooftops of the Torrey Pines Lodge.
So while losing may not be fun, it can certainly be entertaining. This year’s Open was typical in that a dozen or so players rode the leader board long enough to indulge dangerous fantasies of victory. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 champion, pulled within a stroke of the lead on Sunday before stumbling home in 39 to tie for ninth. Ernie Els, struggling to return to the championship form he showed at the 1994 and ’97 Opens, triple-bogeyed 15 (a la Mickelson) on Sunday (taking three lumps instead of four) and finished a lackluster 14th. There was even an eccentric Swede to assume the position once held by Jesper Parnevik at major championships: Robert Karlsson, whose tie for fourth proved that a golfer with a 6′ 5″ frame and a yen for mind-expanding experiences can do big things in a major.
Some of the, uh, victory-challenged were thwarted by greens that went bump in the daytime. Second-round leader Stuart Appleby, for instance, four-putted the 5th hole on Saturday. After missing another short one later in his round, Appleby snatched the ball out of the cup, fumbled it and then joined his caddie in glaring back toward the cup as if it were inhabited by mole crickets. After holing out for a 79, Appleby raised his hand in mock triumph and grinned for the grandstands.
The biggest, most spectacular, most practiced and in the end most gracious loser? That would be Mickelson, whose eagerness to add to his three major titles is so transparent that detractors suspect that he practices victory speeches in front of the shaving mirror. Lefty was a pretournament favorite at Torrey Pines because he was a San Diegan playing before friends and family on a course where he had won three Buick Invitationals and because — oh, yeah — he’s the second best player in the world. The latter obviously meant a lot. But the former?
“People think it’s an advantage to be playing at home, but it’s anything but,” said Mickelson’s short-game coach, Dave Pelz. “There have been a lot of distractions for Phil. Everybody wants a piece of him.”
Pelz had a point. In their role as unofficial tournament hosts, Phil and wife Amy entertained players and their families on two separate evenings at their residence in Rancho Santa Fe. On Wednesday, Mickelson practiced in the morning at his home club, the Bridges, then hustled to daughter Amanda’s school to watch her end-of-the-year presentation on astronaut Sally Ride. The next day, after besting Tiger Woods by a stroke and Scott by two in their first-round marquee pairing, Mickelson took a quick shower and was in the audience for son Evan’s singing recital. Said Amy, “Phil’s been amazing trying to juggle everything.”
Phil was also amazing trying to explain why he started the week without a driver in his bag. “It’s because the three-wood carries 275 [yards],” he said on Saturday. “So it’s running about 300 here [on the firm fairways] and it’s simply easier to hit fairways at 300 than 320.” That, of course, was the argument he had rejected two years before at Winged Foot, where he chose to hit driver instead of three-wood on the 72nd hole and wound up pummeling a hospitality tent.
Pelz, who has seen Mickelson win tournaments with sets that were top-heavy (two drivers) or bottom-heavy (five wedges), wondered why the pundits were excoriating his pupil for playing safe for a change. “If he’s in the fairway all the time, I don’t think anybody can beat him,” said Pelz. “I got roasted for saying that once, but I truly believe it.”
Three-woods, alas, can be hit off line, the same as drivers. Mickelson found only six fairways and seven greens on Friday afternoon, and if it weren’t for his scrambling skills he might have shot 80 instead of 75. (One memorable Mickelsave hinged on a cliffhanger lob from the hazard behind and below the 3rd green, followed by a 30-foot putt over a ridge for his par.) It wasn’t until the next day, though, that Mickelson’s dream died. Lying 2 in the fairway on the par-5 13th, he attacked the front pin with his L-wedge from 80 yards, only to see the ball roll back to his feet. Switching to his 64-degree sand wedge, he repeated the feat not once, but twice, as if to prove that it was no fluke.
“Well, gosh, it’s a birdie hole,” he said afterward, the hurt of the four-jack approach and subsequent three-putt still showing in his eyes. “If I make birdie there, I shoot even par for the day, and I would be within striking distance.” As for his decision to return the driver to his bag for the weekend, Mickelson pleaded nolo contendere. “I’ve lost Opens, like at Winged Foot, where I didn’t hit it in the fairway hitting drivers. I thought that I would try another club here, and it simply didn’t work out. I still missed them.”
That was just one of the ways this U.S. Open was lost. First-round leader Justin Hicks, a 33-year-old striver whose best Nationwide tour finish of 2008 is a 28th at the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship, fell to earth with a second-round 80. Veteran Tour star Davis Love III, a former PGA champion, came through sectional qualifying and sniffed the lead as late as his back nine on Saturday, only to drop off the twig with a 76-78 finish. Vijay Singh fell afoul of the middle rounds (78-76) and slipped away without being noticed.
It’s a frame of mind, losing. Some, like British Open champion Padraig Harrington (a first-round 78) and recent Players winner Sergio Garcia (same round, 76), got off to bad starts and never recovered. “Kind of a tale of two halves,” as Harrington put it. Others, like second-year Tour player John Merrick (tie for sixth) and two-time Tour winner D.J. Trahan (tie for fourth), refused to see themselves as losers. “This is the kind of theater you dream about when you’re a kid,” said Trahan, who wore a red-and-black shirt on Sunday and pumped his arm, Tiger-style, when he birdied the 72nd hole. “It’s amazing to be out there with all those people and all the noise. It’s so much fun.”
Only, losing isn’t fun. This time, the loser who best expressed the sublime anguish of the close call was five-time Ryder Cupper Lee Westwood, 35, who overcame a lost ball on the 13th hole but couldn’t make his Go Directly to Monday putt disappear on the final green. “It’s sickening not to be in the playoff tomorrow,” said the 18-time Euro tour winner, adding, “I think that I’ve proved to myself and a few others that I think there is a major championship in me.” The second think made you wonder if Westwood was really that confident of another chance.
But that’s how it goes, the losing game. Mickelson, the biggest loser, shot a final-round 68 to come in 18th and afterward was all smiles. He praised the golf course, the city, the county and the air he breathed, and he promised to do better at his next major, the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in England. But Mickelson was off the course and out of mind before Woods, Westwood and Rocco Mediate had even teed off. Asked by a reporter if he planned to watch the rest of the tournament, Mickelson answered with a smile. “I’ll probably watch some of it, yeah. It’s kind of my punishment.”
As if losing weren’t punishment enough.