ARDMORE, PA. — “Every time I think of the U.S. Open,” Phil Mickelson said, “I think of heartbreak.” And right away your B.S. alarm went off, because true heartbreak is a consequence of bereavement, unrequited love or scandal. Finishing second in the U.S. Open for the sixth time, as Mickelson did on Sunday, is better classified as a “disappointment.”
But sports is different than life. In sports, champions exult and also-rans mope, but runners-up get roasted on the grill of public accountability. Ask the coach of any team that loses the championship game. Ask the losing Super Bowl quarterback. Ask LeBron James.
We’re a winner-take-all society. Not literally — Mickelson collected roughly $700,000 for his heartbreak at Merion — but certainly on an atavistic level. How else do you explain Tom Watson’s despair over his missed putt on the 72nd hole at Turnberry in 2009? If his putt rolls true, the 59-year-old Watson wins a record-tying sixth British Open and joins the gods on Mount Olympus. If it wobbles off to the left, he’s just a pathetic old man who almost did something great.
Too harsh? For sure. But that’s how it looked to the self-reproaching Watson, and that’s how it looked to Mickelson on Sunday evening, when the wound was still fresh. “This one’s probably the toughest for me,” he said, “because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at the tournament altogether, and the way I would have looked at my record.”
But that’s the source of Mickelson’s heartbreak — the way we look at records. This year’s champion, Justin Rose, has two previous top 10s in the U.S. Open, but he’s missed the cut in half of his Open appearances and failed to even qualify seven times since he turned pro in 1998. Mickelson, on the other hand, was low amateur in his first two tries (1990 and ’91), has been cut only twice (1992, 2007), and has racked up 11 top-10s in 22 U.S. Open starts.* Too bad they don’t carry over scores from year to year; Mickelson might win the decade.
*Tiger Woods, if you were wondering, has “only” eight top-10s in the U.S. Open, and he finished ten strokes behind Mickelson on Sunday. But Woods has three wins.
As it is, there’s an argument to be made for Lefty as the best U.S. Open player of his generation. “I love the way he plays the game,” Rose said after his win. “He plays fearless golf. He keeps everybody guessing. He’s entertaining. And I feel fortunate to be able to beat a world-class player like he is on a day like today.” The USGA’s Mike Davis echoed Rose’s sentiments, saying, “Phil was terrific, and to be a six-time runner up in the National Open Championship, it’s not only a record, but it’s –”
And that’s where Davis left it. Mickelson, if asked to finish the thought, might have said, “But it’s empty.” But Phil was already on his way home, his birthday and Father's Day spoiled because he had failed, yet again, to win the title he craves more than any other: U.S. Open champion.
Heartbreaking? Yeah, maybe.