ARDMORE, PA. — Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties 'cause Phil Mickelson leads by one going into the final round of the U.S. Open. Throw back the covers, stagger into the bathroom, and look at yourself in the mirror. Those puffy eyes tell you anything?
Before we go any further, do you believe in deja vu? Do you get the strange feeling that you’ve seen this Mickelson-finishes-second-at-the-Open episode before? Like, five times?
I ask because people got it so wrong on Friday when a groundhog darted across the sixth fairway as Mickelson was preparing to hit his approach. Thinking it was a gopher, folks tweeted and blogged their best Caddyshack quotes, invoking Bill Murray as the rodent-hunting assistant greenkeeper Carl Spackler. But it wasn’t a gopher, it was a groundhog, and the obvious antecedent was Groundhog Day, the movie in which Murray plays a soul-weary TV weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over again. (Murray’s character, if you’ve forgotten, was named Phil. And so was the groundhog.)
So here’s Phil, the Hall of Fame golfer, with 18 nasty holes at Merion East to negotiate on Sunday before he can add a U.S. Open title to his three Masters wins and lone PGA Championship triumph. And here’s you, the avid Mickelson fan, wondering if you should maybe catch an afternoon movie.
Because, really, can you handle another of your boy’s flameouts? Nothing hurt more than Winged Foot ’06, when Phil hit a hospitality tent and then a tree to spit up his one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole, but you won’t soon forget Pinehurst ’99 (edged by the radar putting of Payne Stewart), or Bethpage Black ’02 (outplayed by Tiger Woods at his peak), or Shinnecock Hills ’04 (overtaken by the scorched-earth putting of Retief Goosen), or Bethpage Black ’09 (pipped at the post by, of all people, Lucas Glover).
The question is: Does history have to repeat itself? Mickelson often beats himself by being insufficiently risk-averse, and that’s one of the reasons you love him. (As Rita says to Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, “I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It’s inspiring, in a way.”) But Mickelson, who will turn 43 on Sunday, has been a paragon of course management this week; he’s played more like the cautious Jack Nicklaus he was once hyped to resemble than the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer he turned out to be. Phil left his driver at home, for Pete’s sake — a concession to Merion’s brutal rough and evidence that he knows his short game is the key to victory. Mickelson is the only player under par after three rounds, and he’s done it by not being “such an idiot,” as he described himself after his Winged Foot debacle.
But neither has he been a Merion wimp. Phil birdied the long and dangerous par-3 17th on Saturday with a flushed 4-iron that never left the, uh, wicker basket. “I just stood there and admired it,” he said after the round. “It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.” As for the possibility that his combined birthday and Father’s Day present might turn out to be another recycled page from his past — well, let’s just say he wasn’t spooked by Friday’s groundhog sighting.
“I love being in the thick of it,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it’s been heart-breaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide. But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open. My ball striking is better than it’s ever been, my putting is better …”
Okay, campers, rise and shine —
No, no, no … no. Hit that snooze button, roll over, and don’t get up until Phil Mickelson is the Open champ.