Phil Mickelson sets sights on major he doesn’t have

Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Phil Mickelson will pardon Jack Nicklaus for his personal short-sightedness.

During a conversation he had with the five-time major champion at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Nicklaus reminded Mickelson that, of his 42 PGA Tour victories, he is missing one significant title.

Nicklaus was referring to his tournament, the Memorial.

Mickelson had another one in mind.

“I want to win this tournament,” Mickelson said, referring to the Memorial, where he failed again for the 16th time last weekend. “There’s another one in two weeks I really want to win, too.”

That one is a little more important: the U.S. Open.

With all apologies to the Golden Bear, that means more to Mickelson than the Memorial.

No player in history has experienced more U.S. Open heartache than Phil Mickelson.

He has finished runner-up in the Open a staggering six times, which is two more than anyone else. Some of his near-misses remain among the most memorable in golf, everything from the dramatic loss to Payne Stewart in 1999 at Pinehurst to the “I’m-such-an-idiot” final-hole gaffe in 2006 at Winged Foot.

On top of that, he returns to Oakmont, where he missed the cut in 2007 because of a sore left wrist that was injured weeks earlier practicing out of the club’s nasty rough. That was the last time Mickelson missed a cut in a U.S. Open. He missed only one other time in 25 appearances — in 1992 at Pebble Beach, his first as a pro.

It is the major he doesn’t have, the one that keeps him from becoming the only the sixth player in history to complete golf’s Grand Slam.

“I love Oakmont,” Mickelson said. “I think it’s the hardest golf course I’ve ever played and, because of that, I’m looking forward to this year’s Open championship. I can’t wait to get back.”

In 2007, Mickelson couldn’t wait to get back to the U.S. Open because it was a chance at redemption for what happened a year earlier at Winged Foot. He had changed swing coaches, parting with longtime instructor Rick Smith to work with Butch Harmon. And he was coming to Oakmont in good form, with a victory at The Players championship and a pair of third-place finishes in his previous three starts.

But, before he was to play at the Memorial, Mickelson went to Oakmont to play an early practice round. He injured his wrist attempting to hit medium and long irons, even fairway metals, from the shaggy rough. Mickelson still went to the Memorial and played a practice round. But he withdrew when his wrist continued to bother him. He withdrew a week later from the St. Jude Classic and received a cortisone shot in his wrist.

It never got better in time for the Open, when he wore a protective sleeve on his wrist, shot 74-77 — 151 and missed the cut. The first day, he parred the last eight holes despite hitting just five fairways and only eight greens in regulation. The next day, his travails included a four-putt at the par-4 No. 10, the hole he considers the toughest on the course.

Asked if he was disappointed about what happened, Mickelson said, “Yeah, but (the injury) turned out to not be a long-term issue and went away and it was OK.”

Mickelson does not come to Oakmont this time in similar form. He has missed the cut in three of his past five starts, including the Masters and Players championship, but he has four top-5 finishes this season and was tied for 20th at the Memorial.

Since 2011, Mickelson has four second-place finishes and a victory in his past 19 major championships. But he will turn 46 Thursday, and time might be running out. He would be the oldest U.S. Open champion in history if he could finally finish one spot higher.

“I did all that (preparation) work for the ’07 Open, and nothing’s really changed. I don’t really have to do that again,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been studying the notes because they’re fairly extensive. I’ll just go out and practice and play and develop a game plan on how I want to play.”

Mickelson as runner-up

Here is a look back at all of Mickelson’s runner-up finishes, some more disturbing than others:

Pinehurst, 1999 — Carrying a beeper and insisting he will leave the tournament if his wife is ready to deliver their first child, Mickelson, 29, has a one-shot lead on Payne Stewart heading to the 16th hole. But Mickelson fails to get up and down from a greenside bunker and save par and Stewart drains an unlikely 25-footer for par to pull even. At the par-3 17th, Mickelson misses an 8-foot birdie attempt and Stewart makes birdie to take a one-shot lead, setting up the drama at the final hole that is among the most compelling finishes in U.S. Open history.

Bethpage Black, 2002 — Mickelson opened with rounds of 70 and 73 to finish eight shots off the 36-hole lead held by Tiger Woods. But he shot 67 Saturday and had a raucous New York crowd on his side as he narrowed his deficit to five shots heading into the final round. When Mickelson birdied the 13th hole Sunday, he got within two shots of the lead. But an errant tee shot at No. 16 led to bogey and ended any real chance of catching Woods.

Shinnecock, 2004 — After finally ending his drought in major championships with a victory at the Masters two months earlier, Mickelson used the momentum to start strong with rounds of 66 and 68 to tie for the 36-hole lead. But, as the course hardened and became almost unplayable, Mickelson began the final round two shots behind Retief Goosen. Back-to-back birdies on Nos. 15 and 16 Sunday gave Mickelson a one-shot lead that quickly evaporated when he three-putted from 5 feet for double-bogey at the par-3 17th. Goosen won by two.

Winged Foot, 2006 — This was the most painful of all. Mickelson came to the U.S. Open having won the previous two majors — the 2005 PGA and the 2006 Masters — and looked as if he would make it three in a row at the 72nd hole when he had a one-shot lead. But, after pushing his tee shot off a hospitality tent and into the trees on the left side of the fairway, Mickelson tried to cut a 3-iron around the trees instead of playing safely back to the fairway. His shot hit a tree and caromed back toward him, forcing him to hit his third shot over the trees into the left greenside bunker. From there, Mickelson’s sand shot ran through the green and resulted in double bogey, handing the title to Geoff Ogilvy of Australia.

Bethpage Black, 2009 — Back at the site where he finished second to Woods seven years earlier, Mickelson was eight shots behind leader Ricky Barnes after 54 holes. But he started a charge Sunday that, because of weather, carried over to Monday, and an eagle at the par-5 13th moved him into a tie for the lead. But Mickelson’s putter betrayed him on the final five holes as he missed several short putts and finished two shots behind winner Lucas Glover.

Merion, 2013 — Mickelson thought this was his best chance to win a U.S. Open, but the club that cost him was the one he relies on the most — his wedge. Mickelson missed an 8-foot birdie putt at No. 16 that all but ended his chance of catching Justin Rose, but his finish might have come earlier when he blew a pitching wedge over the green at the short 121-yard 13th and followed that with a poor gap wedge at the par-4 15th. Both of those miscues resulted in bogey and his sixth second-place finish at a U.S. Open.