This story on Phil Mickelson's collapse at the 2006 U.S. Open first appeared in the June 26, 2006, issue of Sports Illustrated.
FOR 69 holes of last week's U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson did a pretty good Tiger Woods impersonation. For most of a wild final round at Winged Foot Golf Club, he fought off a handful of world-class players, tiptoeing to the precipice of so much history. With a victory Mickelson would join Woods (2000), Jack Nicklaus (1971-72) and Ben Hogan (1953) as the fourth player to win three consecutive majors in the modern era. (Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930 came before the Masters had been founded and included the U.S. and British Amateurs.) A win at Winged Foot would propel Mickelson to next month's British Open with a chance to do the unthinkable: match Woods's greatest feat, the Tiger Slam, which is to hold the titles of all four major championships spread across two seasons. More immediate, a victory at the Open would leave no doubt that Phil had surpassed Tiger as the game's dominant player. But on Sunday, Mickelson shrank from the immensity of the opportunity, handing an improbable victory to Australia's Geoff Ogilvy.
Mickelson led by two after 15 holes and arrived at the 18th a shot ahead of Ogilvy, but on the tee of the 450-yard par-4 he made one of the worst swings of his career, a push-slice that bounced off a hospitality tent miles left of the fairway. What followed was a sequence of mistakes that will haunt Mickelson for the rest of his life, if not longer. Trying to cut a three-iron around a tree he instead doinked its trunk, the ball rolling back at him, mockingly. On the reload Mickelson overcooked another cut shot, flying it into a buried lie in the front left greenside bunker, which left him an impossible play to a back right pin. Minutes earlier he was poised to make history. Now he needed to get up and down just to force an 18-hole playoff. Mickelson's long bunker shot came out hot and trickled off the green, and his ensuing chip for bogey–and salvation–never had a chance.
The finish was stunning in its swiftness, and cruelty. Mickelson hid out in the scorers' area trying to collect himself; his wife, Amy, draped an arm around his shoulders and whispered in his ear. When Phil finally emerged, his eyes were red and watery and he was still struggling to make sense of what had occurred. "I still am in shock that I did that," he said. "I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot. I can't believe I couldn't par the last hole. It really stings."
It is a familiar hurt. The tie for second marked the 21st time that Mickelson had finished seventh or better at a major. Since reinventing himself at the start of 2004 he has won three majors, but in the same span he has kicked away just as many. Mickelson was leading the 2004 U.S. Open when he three-putted from five feet to double bogey the 71st hole. Four weeks later, at the British Open, Mickelson held the lead with seven holes to play only to let it get away. But neither of those disappointments can compare with the gut-wrenching finish at Winged Foot. "This one hurts more than any [other] tournament because I had it won," he said. "I had it in my grasp and just let it go."
Mickelson's self-immolation threw into sharp relief the key difference between him and Woods. Tiger is 10 for 10 protecting a 54-hole lead in a major. When it matters most his decision making and execution are flawless. Mickelson is clearly still a work in progress, and knowing this may explain Woods's peevishness last week when pressed about Phil. Asked at his Tuesday press conference about the state of their rivalry, Woods refused to give Mickelson his due, merely lumping him with other would-be contenders. "You have runs where Ernie was there for a little bit, then Vijay, Goose," Woods said, "and now Phil." A win at Winged Foot would have dramatically changed the conversation, but now Mickelson will have to prove himself all over again.
Woods, meanwhile, came to this U.S. Open with other things on his mind besides Phil. It was his first tournament since the death of his father, Earl, on May 3, and Tiger wanted to honor his memory. "I'm here to compete and play and try to win this championship," he said. "I know that Dad would still want me to grind it and give it my best, and that's what I always do. That's what I will certainly try to do this week."
It took three holes for it to be clear that Woods would not be able to summon his usual passion. On his opening hole he left an eight-foot par putt about a foot short. On the next he left an even shorter par putt even shorter. On the third hole Woods's 45-foot birdie putt came up 10 feet short, resulting in a third straight bogey. This most imperious of competitors, who has conjured so much awe, now elicited an entirely foreign emotion: pity. Woods continued to struggle to find his speed on the greens and hit only three fairways en route to a six-over 76.
On his fifth hole (number 14) of the second round he chunked a chip from the rough and blew another short putt to make double bogey–and all the fight seemed to drain out of him. Woods bogeyed his final two holes to shoot another 76, missing the cut by three strokes. It was his first weekend off at a major since turning pro in 1997, a span of 39 consecutive made cuts, which tied Nicklaus's alltime record.
With Woods off the premises Mickelson imposed his will on the tournament on Saturday, playing the back nine in two under to charge into a tie for the lead. Lurking one stroke back was the 29-year-old Ogilvy, who has become a fixture on Tour leader boards in the last year and a half. The wiry Australian hits it a ton off the tee with his effortless swing and owns one of the most creative, and reliable, short games in golf. His physical gifts have always been apparent. He was considered a can't-miss prospect as far back as 1999, when he was the Australian tour's rookie of the year at 22. But in two ensuing seasons in Europe, and on the PGA Tour beginning in 2001, Ogilvy displayed a vexing inability to win.
His self-lacerating nature was mostly to blame, and his frustrations often led to on-course temper tantrums. "It was pretty embarrassing what I said to myself," Ogilvy said earlier this year. "I would call [myself] useless and say, What are you doing out here?–all sorts of stuff. I was hopeless." He has mellowed over the years, and his performance has improved as a result. Last season he broke through for his first Tour victory, at Tucson, and earlier this year he won the Match Play Championship, along the way dusting major champions Michael Campbell, Mike Weir, Tom Lehman and Davis Love III.
Ogilvy can still run hot on occasion. During the third round his caddie since 1999, Alistair (Squirrel) Matheson, persuaded him to lay up on the par-5 12th hole. Ogilvy failed to make birdie and then spent the better part of the next two holes in Squirrel's ear, complaining about the advice. Not coincidentally, Ogilvy bogeyed both holes. About this time his wife, Juli, could be found pacing in front of the clubhouse. She had been watching the NBC broadcast and couldn't take listening to Johnny Miller continue to browbeat her husband about the dustup. "Of course they're going to have disagreements," Juli said of her husband and his caddie. "It's like a marriage. They've been together seven years."
On Sunday morning Juli wished Geoff happy Father's Day, and "I didn't know how to take it," he said. That's because the preggers Juli won't deliver their first child until November. Still, the holiday cheer must have inspired Ogilvy because when he made birdies on 5 and 6 he suddenly had a two-stroke lead. He was still atop the leader board as late as the 10th hole, but with a bogey on 11 he dropped one back of Mickelson into a four-way tie with Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie.
That was when Ogilvy began a short-game clinic. He put his tee shot on the par-3 13th in a bunker on the short side of the green, but he clanged his second shot off the flagstick and saved par. He got up and down for par at 16, and on the par-4 17th a series of misadventures in the gnarly rough left him lying three and still 30 feet from the flag, in the first cut. As Ogilvy was sizing up the shot Squirrel pulled a Bruce Edwards, and his boss was all too happy to play the part of Tom Watson. "He said, 'Just chip it in,'" Ogilvy remarked afterward. 'Why don't you just chip it in?'" So he did.
On 18 Ogilvy busted a clutch drive down the fairway, but his ball came to rest in a divot. Betraying no emotion at his misfortune, he ripped a six-iron at the flag. "I thought I had hit my career shot there," he said. "But it caught a soft bounce, and [the ball] came all the way back down the hill. And then I thought I was really done for. I mean, you're not going to do it from there."
But he did, playing a delicate pitch to six feet and pouring the putt into the cup. "I was hitting that putt thinking this may get me in a playoff," Ogilvy said. "I never thought Phil would make bogey at the last."
He didn't, of course.
Ogilvy's winning score of five over was the highest at an Open since 1974, when Hale Irwin survived the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot at seven over. To win on such a grueling track is a challenge as much mental as physical, and on Sunday evening Ogilvy spoke extensively about the psychological aspects of golf. "For the most part the best players are the best because they're the best up here," he said, tapping his melon. "Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world because he's got the best brain. He hits the ball well, but there are plenty of guys that hit the ball well. But he's got the best head."
Conspicuously absent from the discussion was the star-crossed Mickelson. He had retreated to the privacy of the clubhouse and was sitting at his 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. In his roller-coaster career Mickelson has taken plenty of punches to the solar plexus, but he has always come back for more. This one will be harder to get over. The U.S. Open has become his annual psychodrama, much as the Masters tortured Greg Norman. Mickelson has now finished second at the Open four times, including another final-hole loss, in 1999. "I've never seen him like this," Amy whispered. "I think he's in shock."
Finally, Phil stirred, packing up and then beginning the slow trudge home. As he snaked through the locker room he passed numerous mementos of Winged Foot's glorious U.S. Open history and the legends who have enjoyed starring roles. There was a reproduction of a 1929 newspaper trumpeting Bobby Jones's victory. A 1959 clipping celebrated Billy Casper's heroics. A photograph from 1984 showed a beaming Fuzzy Zoeller holding the winner's trophy aloft, and there was also a picture of Irwin, 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 all of its ghosts.