ARDMORE, Pa. (AP) — This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end, not on Phil Mickelson’s birthday and not at Merion Golf Club, where history will record with little fanfare outside of England that Justin Rose won his first major championship.
When the rain began falling on the back nine Sunday after Mickelson pitched in for an eagle on the 10th hole to take the lead in the U.S. Open, you half expected a rainbow to appear amid the clouds with a trophy at the end of it and bearing Mickelson’s name.
He probably expected it, too, if only because the law of averages would seem to demand it. Five times before he had been runner-up in this tournament and no bookie in Vegas would offer odds of any player finishing second in the national championship six times.
But golf is a cruel game and the Open seems even crueler to Mickelson, though some of the fault lies within. He desperately chased the best birthday present of all, only to kick it away once again in a way only Mickelson seems to lose golf tournaments.
Two bad wedges from one of the greatest short game players ever. One more huge disappointment in a tournament Mickelson seems destined never to win.
If he didn’t cry, surely some of his many fans did. This wasn’t so much a loss as it was a career encapsulating moment, and though Mickelson handled it with his usual grace that didn’t make it any easier to stomach.
He began the week by flying all night to make his tee time just so he could watch his daughter speak at her eighth-grade graduation. He ended it by wondering why at he keeps being tortured by a tournament he loves but doesn’t love him back.
“Heartbreak,” Mickelson said when asked what he would take from this one, and it was a word he used more than once.
The fans who crowded into old Merion came expecting something special from a century-old golf course where history seems to come alive. So, too, did Mickelson on a day he hoped to remember for far different reasons than it being both his birthday and Father’s Day.
Ben Hogan famously won here in 1950 after a near fatal car accident and Bobby Jones capped off his Grand Slam here 20 years before. Who among the thousands lining the fairways and greens didn’t expect Mickelson’s first Open win to write a new chapter in Merion lore?
It was just 18 holes of golf, but it seemed much more than that. It could have been the story of his career, with Good Phil, Bad Phil, Unlucky Phil and Jubilant Phil all making cameos at some point during the round.
When he pitched in from 75 yards on the 10th hole to retake the lead he leapt in the air with both arms raised high, much like he did in 2004 when he shook off the critics and his own self-doubt to win his first Masters, cradling his daughter on the side of the green and telling her, “Daddy won! Can you believe it?”
This one would have been almost as good, except there would be cake instead of a green jacket. All Mickelson had to do was play even par coming in to win and, though that’s a tough order in any Open, he had the easy 121-yard 13th hole that he would almost surely birdie as insurance against any bogeys down the stretch.
But he hit a pitching wedge instead of a gap wedge to the hole, flying the green and leaving himself with a pitch from the rough he had no way of getting close to the hole. He made bogey, then compounded his error on No. 15 by quitting on a gap wedge and leaving it so short he had to chip from the front of the green for another bogey.
This from a guy who had studied Merion so carefully that he carried five wedges in his bag and not one driver.
“Thirteen and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I’ll look back on where I let it go,” Mickelson said.
What made it hurt even more was that Merion was Mickelson’s kind of course, a place where he could work the ball both ways and use his short game magic to trump the field. He knew it from the time he first played it, and became even more convinced of it the more he studied his notes and course pictures in the days ahead of the Open.
He opened with a 67 on little sleep and had a one-shot lead going into the final round. Everything was going according to plan — you could almost see the newspaper headlines of “PHIL-a-del-phia” — but anyone who has ever seen Mickelson play knows that even his best plans sometimes have a way of unraveling with little warning.
“This could have been the big — a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I’d like to win after having so many good opportunities,” Mickelson said. “Playing very well here and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity I felt, heading in, certainly the final round, the way I was playing and the position I was in.”
There was still a chance at the end, though it wasn’t a good one. With no driver, Mickelson had to hit his 3-wood on the 511-yard finishing hole immortalized by Hogan’s 1-iron and he put it in the left rough with no chance of reaching the green.
The crowd serenaded him with choruses of “Happy Birthday” as he came to the green needing to hole a pitch shot to force a playoff, but there would be no happiness this time.
“This one’s probably the toughest for me because, 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,” Mickelson said.
“Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
A word he kept repeating. A feeling he knows all too well.