Can we all agree that this is absolutely the final boarding call for the Phil Mickelson U.S. Open Heartbreak Experience?
Here at Shinnecock Hills, a place that well and truly represents Mickelson’s wrenching relationship with this championship, might we, one way or another, close the book on the single missing piece to an otherwise complete set of golf sterling?
Here it is: One last, best chance for Mickelson to fill out his career grand slam before he starts doing all the AARP commercials, too.
He turns 48 this weekend, you know, which is the very limit of mankind’s proven ability to win at this level (Julius Boros was that age when he took the 1968 PGA, becoming the oldest major champion). This is Mickelson’s 27th U.S. Open, and not even a magic Frank Thomas pill can reverse that many years.
The daily little bites that real life takes from a fellow add up after a while. Why, just a year ago Mickelson missed the U.S. Open in order to watch his daughter graduate high school. Priorities do rightfully accumulate over time, like dust on a doily.
And if not Shinnecock, whose locals seem to admire Mickelson almost as much as they do a Hamptons clambake, then where?
Yeah, everybody’s cheering for him here. “Wherever you go, if you’re paired with Phil, you’re always getting less cheers than he is,” said Jordan Spieth, who is playing with Mickelson Thursday and Friday.
“He deserves it. I’ll certainly be pulling for him to play well this week. It would be exciting for him to be in the mix.”
Of the ridiculous six U.S. Open runner-up finishes he has endured, Mickelson counts the one in 2004 right here as perhaps the most lamentable.
“That is the one I should have won more than any other,” Mickelson told Golf Digest. After birdies on Nos. 15 and 16, leading with two holes to play in 2004, he took double bogey from the bunker on the par-3 17th, smoothing the way for a Retief Goosen victory.
He finished fourth in the prior Open at Shinnecock, in 1995, and today even employs that one as a valuable example.
“I played 16 (a par 5) 6 over par. I lost by four shots (to Corey Pavin). If I played that hole even, I could have won,” he said.
“In my mind back then, a par 5 was a hole you had to make birdie on. And now, as I have kind of evolved, I look back and use that negative as a learning experience to help me play better this week.”
Attitude being another club in the bag, Mickelson seems to be bringing a particularly useful one to Long Island.
Shinnecock was practically a dirty word in 2004. The setup was severe, and the greens baked to a New York pizza kind of crust. Goosen and Mickelson were the only two players to get out of there under par. Today, though, he is among the score of players who are lauding the changes that have kept the integrity of place while not turning it into a freak show.
“I feel as though the luck of a course has been taken out as much as possible to where skill is the primary factor,” Mickelson said. “I think we're going to have a great leaderboard and a great tournament.”
No matter that the Open, above all the majors, has frustrated Mickelson. He still sees himself up on that as-yet empty leaderboard. “I love the challenge. I mean, I really love the challenge, and I love that I have another opportunity to try and complete the career grand slam,” he said.
There never has been any dancing around the subject of wanting to add a U.S. Open to his collection of Masters, British Open and PGA Championship titles. You’ve seen Mickelson. Not exactly “Dancing with the Stars” material.
He very well could have gotten the U.S. Open part of the package out of the way in ’04, the same year he had his majors breakthrough at the Masters. Didn’t happen, and his thirst for the missing major has only intensified through the years.
“When I first came out,” he said, “I just wanted to win any major. Any tournament, any major. It wasn't U.S. Open specific or Masters. It was any major.
“Now that I've won the other three majors, it's U.S. Open specific. I would love to win this one to win all four. That's certainly a goal and nothing I'm shying away from.”
One disclaimer: Mickleson’s U.S. Open finishes since his last runner-up appearance (2013) have betrayed diminishing returns. T-28 in 2014. T-64 in 2015. Missed cut in 2016.
Looking how to frame Mickelson’s last, best U.S. Open chance? Why not let his chief tormentor, Tiger Woods, do some of the fill work?
Said Woods: “Of all the events, you would think that this would be the one that he would have the least chance to win because of the way he’s driven it for most of his career (read that, erratically).
“But that short game of his is off the charts. A U.S. Open is about wedging it, it really is. And he’s been one of the best of all time at doing that – he’s made some of the more difficult pars that you have to make to win this championship.
“He’s come so close. For him to be able to somehow pull it off at his age. . .to complete the career grand slam would be an unbelievable task and unbelievable accomplishment.”
There’s the backdrop to the one, final, serious Open quest of Phil Mickelson.
Next year’s Open is at Pebble Beach. . .
Mickelson has won there four times. . .
If it doesn’t happen this week. . .
Stop right there.
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