Of the many twists of fate that have befallen Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open, perhaps the cruelest is that he last contended for this trophy 35 days before it became the only major hardware absent from his mantelpiece.
It was July 21, 2013, when Mickelson won the Open Championship at Muirfield, giving him five majors and three legs of the career grand slam. His last serious tilt at the new world Open happened a month earlier at Merion.
Mickelson has played another five since, mostly with each result more desultory than the year before. Ahab is still chasing his whale, but the pursuit seems ever more futile.
Despite the three green jackets, the Claret Jug and the Wanamaker, the U.S. Open remains the seminal event in Mickelson’s career. Rarely has an athlete had such a symbiotic relationship with a tournament he has never won. Rare, but not unheard of.
It’s 15 miles south from Winged Foot to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where that other U.S. Open with bigger balls concluded last week. Thirty-nine years ago, Bjorn Borg lost the men’s singles final to John McEnroe. Borg owned 11 Grand Slam titles then, but that was his fourth loss in the final in New York, leaving him 0-for-9 in his career there. Before the trophy presentation even began that day in ‘81, Borg was already in his car to the airport. He never played another Grand Slam event, and retired shortly afterward.
New York can do that to a man. Even to a legend.
Four of Mickelson’s six second-place finishes in the U.S. Open have come in New York: two at Bethpage Black, one at Shinnecock Hills and, most infamously, one here at Winged Foot. It’s been 14 years since he hit both a tent and a tree on his way to a double-bogey on the final hole, losing by one to Geoff Ogilvy. Mickelson turned 36 that week. He had time. Now he’s 50, making his 29th start in the tournament, still empty-handed, and the hourglass is all but empty.
“If I were to win this week, it would be a bonus,’’ Mickelson told the New York Post, displaying an admirable gift for understatement. “That’s the way I’m looking at it. I have an opportunity to have a bonus win that I didn’t expect in my career if I can put it all together this week.’’
The odds that Mickelson will put it together seem slender. At last week’s Safeway Open on the PGA Tour, he hit just 12 fairways over four rounds on a course where the short grass is a lot easier to find and the rough a lot easier to escape than at Winged Foot, famed as one of the most demanding tests in golf. It was, he declared, “the worst I’ve played in the last three months.”
Mickelson will have to play a lot better to even have a chance of getting his heart broken again. And it’s possible this 120th playing of the Open might be the last shot in his chamber.
Unlike the other three major championships, the U.S Open doesn’t allow past glories to grant a player eternal access to the tee. In typical years (read: those not involving a pandemic), half the field comes through qualifying, which will always be an option for him. The top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking are exempt into the tournament. Mickelson sits now at 53rd, continuing a halting slide south over the last few years. Earlier this year, before COVID upended the landscape, he was ranked outside the top 70.
Asked then if he would accept one of the USGA’s periodic special exemptions given to players deemed deserving of a free pass, he was emphatic that he would not. He would play his way in or he would stay home.
That’s a position Mickelson will hope not to have to reconsider for next year’s Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won the Farmers Insurance Open three times. If he’s not already qualified, it’s almost certain the USGA will offer him a spot. Would he really turn down a guaranteed farewell in his hometown? Closing his U.S. Open career will be bittersweet wherever and whenever it comes, but ending matters at Torrey Pines would at least offer a sentimental sheen to things.
Ending it at Winged Foot, on the other hand, seems like a final indignity.
This week is still important to Mickelson, but it seems less about competition than commerce these days. Early in the week, he posted to social media an image of himself from that final round at Winged Foot in ’06 — when Phat Phil was more Reubenesque in his curvature — and juxtaposed it with a photo of his now sleeker self. It was a pitch for his latest business venture, Coffee for Wellness. The U.S. Open that he for so long hoped would be a springboard to greatness is today merely a platform for product marketing.
Which is fair enough. It’s the least this championship can do to repay him for three decades of suffering.