A few inches here, a few yards there. That’s what Phil Mickelson’s latest failure to win the U.S. Open came down to.
After entering the final round of golf’s second annual major championship with a one-shot lead, Mickelson left Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, with a record-extending sixth runner-up finish. Coming second to England’s Justin Rose was not the birthday or Father’s Day present the 43-year-old left-hander was looking for.
Rose became the first English player to take the title since Tony Jacklin in 1970. Mickelson was left to wonder, yet again, if he would ever win the tournament.
“Heartbreaking,” Mickelson said. “This is tough to swallow. This was my best chance of all of them because I was playing so well. At 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record. This was as good of an opportunity as you could ask for. And to not do it, it hurts.”
Mickelson’s run of near misses this time started on the first hole, where his 35-foot (10.5 meter) birdie putt caught the lip of the cup and failed to fall in.
“I can’t believe that ball didn’t go in,” he said.
A 40-foot bunker shot on the second hole caught the edge of the hole and stayed out, as did his four-foot par attempt that followed.
A three-putt bogey on the third hole left him shaking his head. Still, Mickelson stood on the fifth tee with a share of the lead with playing partner Hunter Mahan. When his tee shot trickled into the rough lining the edge of the creek on the left side of the fairway, Mickelson turned to caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay in disbelief.
“Again?” he asked. “Unbelievable.”
The words summed up Mickelson’s long quest for his first U.S. Open title.
“All day it seemed like I would hit putt after putt that wouldn’t go in,” he said. “They looked good at three feet or four feet out and I couldn’t quite get it to go in.”
With 23 U.S. Open appearances, Mickelson entered the tournament at Merion, a venue he praised and that lists Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan among its champions, with more experience than any of the 156 players in the field. He has also experienced more heartbreak than all players combined.
Many golf industry officials and followers questioned the U.S. Golf Association’s decision to return to the course 32 years after it last hosted the Open. USGA President Glen Nager defended the decision as he presented the winner’s trophy to Rose.
“Some questioned if she was up for the test,” he said of the 6,996-yard (6,400-meter) course, the shortest U.S. Open course in nine years. “Well, she has clearly spoken. She did.”
When the final round began, only Mickelson was under par. At the end, Rose won at 1 over.
“The course definitely held up,” said Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner. “It definitely shouldn’t be another 32 years.”
The loss for Mickelson, a week after a runner-up finish at the U.S. PGA Tour event in Memphis, Tennessee, wasn’t his most dramatic.
In 2006 at New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club, after winning the previous year’s PGA Championship and that year’s Masters Tournament, Mickelson was in position to join Hogan and Tiger Woods as the only players to win three straight professional majors. Mickelson shared the lead entering the final round and needed a par on the last hole for the victory.
After hitting his tee shot off the roof of a hospitality tent on the left side of the 18th hole, Mickelson recorded a double bogey as Geoff Ogilvy won the tournament.
“I am such an idiot,” Mickelson said after that loss. “I am still in shock that I did that.”
One thing was different this time. Unlike his previous five runner-up finishes, he began the final round in the outright lead. By the time he reached the ninth hole at Merion, Mickelson was one shot off the lead. He then lipped out yet another birdie attempt.
“I thought I made that,” he said in familiar refrain.
Good fortune seemed to finally turn his way on the 290-yard, par-4 10th. After his iron shot off the tee settled into the rough, Mickelson holed out a 75-yard wedge shot for an eagle. He leaped into the air and threw a flurry of first pumps. When the roars subsided, Mickelson was back in the lead at even par.
“It was a critical shot,” he said. “I would have been happy to take birdie there. But to see that ball go in, I really thought that I was in a good position. That shot vaulted me up and allowed me to be more patient.”
His patience would quickly run out. After Rose regained the lead with birdies on the 12th and 13th holes, Mickelson made bogey at the 13th, 15th and 18th holes.
Among golf’s list of second-place finishers, Mickelson’s futility has him ahead of an elite list. Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are second all-time with four U.S. Open runner-up finishes. Nicklaus, the winner of 18 major titles, is the only golfer to finish second more times in a single major, as a seven-time runner-up at the British Open.
Mickelson has three wins at the Masters and one at the PGA Championship. It’s the U.S. Open that he covets the most and where, he said, a championship is most needed in his resume.
“If I never win, every time I think of the U.S. Open,” he said. “I just think of heartbreak.”