Mickelson sees another U.S. Open victory slip away

ARDMORE

— You'd think the ghost of Payne Stewart or Sam Snead would have helped re-direct one of those putts that rimmed out for Phil Mickelson on Father's Day and his 43rd birthday Sunday at Merion Golf Club.

But this is a cruel game, and the U.S. Open has been a particularly cruel tournament for Lefty, who's been able to do everything right in golf and life except come out ahead just once in this event after what is now more than a handful of close calls.

Mickelson and his growing legion of fans were forced to absorb the sixth U.S. Open runner-up finish of his career, which has been defined as much by those near-misses as it has by the five major championships and 41 total PGA Tour victories that already have him in the Hall of Fame.

Sunday's final round on these historic grounds was supposed to end a historic chase by Mickelson that began in 1999 on the eve of the birth of his first child, Amanda. Stewart beat him that day to walk off with the trophy, but not before grabbing Mickelson firmly and reminding him that family is first and, because of that, Mickelson had something more important than his first major.

Mickelson's family has been first ever since, throughout the birth of two more children and cancer scares for his wife and mother-in-law.

So when he took off from Philadelphia for their home near San Diego, albeit on his private jet, last Monday to be present for Amanda's eighth-grade graduation on Wednesday, literally hours before his 7:40 a.m. tee time Thursday, there was another reminder.

Mickelson, who should be required role-model reading for everyone who's ever played or observed this game, had taken care of business the way he should as a father and a husband and a provider.

This week, in which he claimed to be at the top of his game and playing better than he had in years, was supposed to be the coronation then.

This was supposed to end the chase. This was supposed to be his reward for 1999, his atonement for being "such an idiot" for failing to make par on 18 in 2006, his just due for being so great for so long without ever winning our nation's championship.

It wasn't. Mickelson once again lost grip of the reins with a pair of double bogeys on the front and bogeys on three of the final six holes for a 74, his highest round of the week.

Doesn't matter what exactly went wrong or what the turning point was. Doesn't matter that Mickelson has never been ranked No. 1 in the world, never won the Tour money title, never won the Fed Ex Cup and never will accomplish any of those feats.

All that mattered was using this vehicle on this day to tie a ribbon around his career. The U.S. Open was something that he should almost be entitled to as sort of a lifetime achievement award.

That's something that tragically never happened for Snead, who went to his grave in 2002 with 82 career PGA Tour wins, including seven majors. He's the only player in history with more wins than Mickelson who's never won this event.

At his age and battling psoriatic arthritis, Mickelson may have seen his window slam shut with Sunday's defeat, which came at the hands of Justin Rose, who admitted his victory had a slight bittersweet taste.

"He's such a great guy to play golf with and to have for the Tour," Rose said. "I love the way he plays the game. He plays fearless golf, he keeps everybody guessing, he's entertaining. I feel fortunate to be able to beat a world-class player on a day like today.

"I learned a lot about Phil during the Ryder Cup when we went down the stretch together [in 2012]. I was fortunate enough there to be able to make three of the best putts of my life to beat him, and he couldn't have been more gracious. So you like to feel for him."

Especially because the clock ticks faster for Mickelson with each successive defeat.

"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 admitted. "Except I just keep feeling heartbreak."

Coming so close without winning so many times has to be even more excruciating than, say, failing to make the cut. At least that's Jim Furyk's perspective.

"I'll be honest with you," Furyk said after rounds of 77 and 79 sent him home early this year. "Oakmont, Winged Foot and The Olympic Club were far more disappointing to get so close — and I felt like I got kicked in the stomach for all three of those — to lose by a shot or two when I could have won. So miss the cut by one, miss the cut by 40, it doesn't really matter. But you lose an event by one or two, and it sticks with you for a while."

Of course, Furyk did actually win this tournament one time.

One time. That's all Phil Mickelson wants.

nick.fierro@mcall.com

610-778-2243

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