Why hasn’t Phil Mickelson won the U.S. Open? He might not be boring enough

June 8, 2014

The U.S. Open is a boring golf tournament, run by boring people, won either by boring golfers or by creative golfers not afraid to be boring. The U.S. Open is also, by far, the game’s most significant test of golfing skill, run by some of the most knowledgeable people in the game, played on courses that are the most demanding in all of golfdom and often won by the most complete golfers who have ever played the game. Try on this foursome of multiple winners: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods.

It all makes you wonder about Phil Mickelson. He’s been talking lately about getting himself on that ­multiple-winners­ list. He’d look good there. But to do that, Mickelson—who turns 44 on Monday, June 16, the day after the final round of this year’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2—needs to join the club of the 39 living men who have won at least one U.S. Open. And when it comes to U.S. Opens, one is huge. (Just ask Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson.) Especially when one would make Phil the sixth golfer to win the modern career Grand Slam.

How is it possible for one man to have finished second six times in this one tournament? Is it its name? Is it the demands the tournament puts on its winners? How will the report that he is part of an SEC-FBI insider-trading probe affect his golf? What do more ordinary golfers, like Andy North and Lee Janzen, each a two-time U.S. Open champ, know that Mickelson does not? What can we—and Phil—learn from all those near misses?

And will this be his year?

Sure, this could be his year. The U.S. Open is back at Pinehurst, where Phil won his first ­runner-up prize, in 1999, when it was just a novelty for him. Really, it was his best chance for victory of the 23 U.S. Opens in which he has played. Unless you consider Winged Foot 2006 his best chance. Or Merion ’13. Or Shinnecock ’04.

As for the two Bethpage seconds, they fall short of the true near-miss test. They were most remarkable for the fan-Phil relationship, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks the first time and of wife Amy’s breast-cancer­ diagnosis the second. He wasn’t one swing away from winning either one.

Of the six, Winged Foot is the one most remember best, and with the most painful clarity. That’s because he came to the 72nd hole on Sunday needing a par to win or a bogey to get into a playoff, only to make double with the whole world watching.

In discussions about Mickelson’s six silver medals, some Philologists refer to the Big Three: Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Merion. (Pinehurst 1999 serves as the sort of ultimate spring training game in this saga.) But one faction argues that Winged Foot was so deeply weird, it must be put in a category all its own. That’s because at Winged Foot, Mickelson was hitting the ball so erratically that it was a miracle he came to the final hole with any chance at all. The closing double was a cruel joke sent down from on high by Hogan himself: Do you really think you can play 71 holes like that and win the national open, fella?

At Pinehurst, Mickelson played something much closer to U.S. Open golf. Hogan, the greatest of all U.S. Open players, invented the phrase fairways and greens, if not by word than certainly by deed. Fairways and greens has characterized every golfer who has won the national championship. Hale Irwin (three wins), Retief Goosen (two), Lou Graham (one), all fairways-and-greeners. Through his career, in and out of Opens, that concept has often been foreign to Phil.

But at Pinehurst, Mickelson found his inner Hogan, or his version of it. On Sunday he hit a Hoganesque 12 of 14 fairways and a respectable 11 greens. He shot a boring U.S. Open round of even par, with 16 pars, a birdie and a bogey. He did almost everything right, yet it was not enough. Payne Stewart made an 18-footer on the last to win by a shot and avoid a playoff that Phil said he would not have attended anyway.

All was not lost. Far from it. Other golfers—Big Jack as an amateur, Watson as a kid pro—had lost before winning. Mickelson was 29 then, and Amy was at home, their first child due any day. Mickelson’s caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, was carrying a baby beeper, and Phil was ready to walk off the course the moment it beeped and fly off to a distant maternity ward.

That might sound like an enormous distraction, but for Mickelson it had the opposite effect. It was almost like giving a stimulant to a person with ADD. The scope of what was in store for him at home made the task at hand, playing world-class golf in a U.S. Open, relatively easy. With that in mind, weird as it might sound, could the SEC-FBI investigation help Mickelson focus this time around?

Lee Janzen, who won the 1993 Open at Baltusrol and the ’98 Open at Olympic, said in an interview last week that he suspected for many years that he had ADD and sometime in the past 10 years he confirmed it. He believes his friend Payne Stewart, the winner of the ’91 and the ’99 Opens, was “ADHD to the max.” He said he sees ADD traits in Phil, and he thinks it has helped Phil’s golf.

“The person with ADD gets bored quickly of the thing that doesn’t interest him but gets really, really focused on the thing that does,” Janzen said. And focus, Janzen said, is what he did for the 552 shots he took over the 144 holes he played in his Open wins. There was not a moment of letup. Mickelson, he said, is thisclose to doing that. “Just every once in a while,” Janzen said, “there’s a shot that’s like, Where was I on that one?”

A huge slice off the tee and an ill-advised second shot led to a double-bogey on

Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

A huge slice off the tee and an ill-advised second shot led to a double-bogey on 18 at Winged Foot in 2006.
Janzen didn’t cite examples, but the second shot on the last hole at Winged Foot, from the trampled left rough, was ill-considered. Mickelson went for a hero shot when all he needed to do was punch one down the fairway, pitch on from there and make a putt to win or two-putt for a playoff against Geoff Ogilvy.

Phil’s tee shot on the tiny par-3 13th at Merion on Sunday was a mistake too. If anything, he overthought that one. He made a routine shot much too difficult by taking too much club and trying to take something off it as a damp breeze ruffled his pant legs. Yes, this is a harsh analysis of one of the game’s great players. But this is a player who’s trying to join Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods on the career Grand Slam list. He’s being held to the highest standard.

When Mickelson came to Pine­hurst in 1999—looking for his first major title—he had not won in 16 months. His current fallow period is shorter; he won the British Open at Muirfield last July with a remarkable final-round 66. But since then, his best finish is a sixth at the Barclays last August. In April he missed the cut at the Masters. Last week at the Memorial he was 49th. Mickelson has said his struggles this year have had nothing to do with physical health or swing mechanics. His head has been another matter.

“Mentally, I’m just really soft right now—I’m having a hard time focusing on the shot,” he said in May after missing the cut at the Players. “I’ll go home and see if I can work on it.” With whom, if anybody, is not known.

In 2011, Mickelson acknowledged he had been working with a mental coach, Julie Elion. It’s not clear whether they’re still working together, but her influence seems to be lingering. For one thing, focus is one of Elion’s biggest themes (as it is for all these golf therapists), and on one occasion last year at Merion, Mackay could be heard giving this preshot directive to his boss: “C’mon, focus.”

The word truthfulness comes up often in Elion’s work with her clients. She implores them to be truthful with themselves, and variants of that word show up in Mickelson’s press sessions. At the Memorial he said, “I just think it’s easier to be honest and up front about what I’m feeling and going through than deny it, which is why, when I lose, I talk about how tough it is. Because it is. It’s challenging. I had such a down moment after losing at Merion. The same thing at Winged Foot.” In an interview last week Elion talked about the distinct challenges of the U.S. Open. “Some of my colleagues take the view, The U.S. Open is just another tournament,” Elion said. “I don’t think it is. I think its name does make it harder. I think the hype and the media make it harder. The golf course itself is harder. I want my clients to be truthful with themselves about the challenges they are facing. We want them to be emotionally in check. We want them to be really, really focused for five hours. If something goes wrong, take 30 seconds, analyze truthfully what happened and move on.”

All of this, of course, is easier said than done and more natural for some golfers ­(­Goosen) than others (Mickelson). And then there is ­Janzen, who says he did treat the U.S. Open as if it were just another tournament. Well, to each his own. Elion stresses the importance of a golfer being true to his personality type, and to himself. A challenge here is that Phil’s personality type does not fit the profile of your prototypical U.S. Open winner.

Since 1946, when the U.S. Open resumed after World War II, 47 golfers have won the tournament. Of those, four, at most, were obviously outgoing, charismatic individuals who could be buoyed by fan support: Arnold Palmer for sure, and Stewart, Jerry Pate and Ernie Els to lesser degrees. Each of the 43 others would have played the exact same shots if the gallery consisted of nothing but 17 men wearing white button-down shirts and sweat-stained USGA ties, and had a pull-cart for a caddie.

Phil comes out of the Arnold mold, and that has served him well at Augusta, where the desire to show off one’s creativity contributes mightily to winning play (see: Watson, Bubba). On the other hand, in U.S. Open golf, playing in a vacuum is ideal. Planning is valued, and Mickelson is one of the most meticulous planners there is. But fans by their nature are emotional, and emotion is the enemy of ­fairways-and-greens, well-planned golf. It’s better to block the fans out. The U.S. Open says to stay on the main road. Respect the law of the land.

Consider this common situation: A closer is working in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead, two outs and a full count. The crowd rises to its feet and cheers lustily for the game to end. The noise adds fuel to the pitcher’s next fastball. For the batter, the mental exercise of making contact or taking ball four has suddenly become far more difficult. The guy’s fastball has never been faster, and now there’s all this noise. Think how often those games end in a called strike or a swing and a miss.

Phil and Bubba are look-at-me closers, as was Arnold. That’s perfect for Augusta National. But U.S. Open winners are more like the dead-sober­ contact hitters who don’t strike out in that situation: a Rod Carew, a Tony Gwynn, maybe a Joe Mauer. They know that a walk or any batted ball will at least have a chance of keeping his team alive. They were (or are) masters of tuning out to tune in, no different than Hogan and Nicklaus and Woods.

At Merion last year, Phil made three bogies in the final six holes.

Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated
At Merion last year, Phil made three bogies in the final six holes.

Bethpage 2002 was a lovefest between the spectators and a golfer (Phil) not afraid to make eye or even physical contact. Nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks emotions were raw, human interaction never seemed more important, and Phil, a natural people person, stepped into the void. Serenaded all the way around, he celebrated his 32nd birthday by shooting an ­even-par 70 in the opening round. At the end of the day he trailed the leader—Woods, of course—by three. Tiger was at the height of his powers then, and his golf came out as if from a machine. He was like the great Yankees teams of that era, and he was more respected than loved. Phil, who was still looking for his first World Series ring (that is, a major), was more like the Brooklyn Dodgers. The New Yorkers embraced Phil, and he played for them (among others). It might have helped his golf but only to a point. Woods played nearly flawless fairways-and-greens golf for four days, and Phil finished second, three shots behind, just where he was when he bit into his birthday cake on Thursday night.

Two years later at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson trailed Goosen by two through three rounds. The Sunday conditions were difficult. It was windy, cloudless and warm, and the USGA had cut the greens down to nothing. At times the players felt they were putting on pavement. Mickelson played a superb round of Sunday U.S. Open golf—71—almost eight shots better than the average score that day.

But on the par-3 17th, with the championship well within his grasp and a swelling and loud crowd right there, his planning went awry. Mickelson’s second shot, from a greenside bunker, is one he’d love to have back. It left him with a downhill six-footer for par. He made double.

What happened there, internally? Was the underlying problem mounting frustration with the conditions? Trying too hard for the buzzing crowd? Over­excitement about the prospect of winning a U.S. Open? It’s unlikely even Phil really knows. One of Janzen’s points is that Phil does not have to play perfect golf to win a U.S. Open. But he needs to ask himself, on every shot, Am I all in?

And then there’s Janzen’s brother-in-arms, Andy North, who won his U.S. Opens in 1978 at Cherry Hills and in ’85 at Oakland Hills. The veteran ESPN golf analyst has a take on U.S. Open golf and Phil so different from Janzen’s you can’t believe these two are watching the same player. Janzen thinks winning the British Open will make it harder for Mickelson to win the U.S. Open, because of the added pressure of chasing the career Grand Slam. North says the true greats welcome such pressure and that the extra layer of meaning won’t inhibit Mickelson. While Janzen treated the U.S. Open like an ordinary tournament, North says he felt he had to treat the Open as a sui generis championship unlike any other.

He was asked whether he let fans in.

“You know, in my two wins, I don’t remember any crowd noise,” North said, before noting one exception. “The U.S. Open fit my mentality, which was grind and grind and grind, grind forever. The winners of U.S. Opens are often guys who are comfortable being boring, comfortable not showing off.”

Maybe you’re thinking: That doesn’t sound like Phil.

“It’s becoming Phil,” North said.

Each of these two-time Open winners was asked if they had any words of wisdom for a guy looking to win his first Open.

“Play with peace,” said Janzen.

“Don’t follow a bad shot with a bad shot,” said North.

They both think Phil Mickelson’s chances of winning the U.S. Open this year at Pine­hurst, one day short of 44, are better than they have ever been. He’s older and wiser. After 23 ­attempts and six seconds, he has an understanding of what the U.S. Open demands of its winners. Janzen and North would happily welcome him to the club. They know what we know: The man has paid his dues.