PINEHURST, N.C. — Golf doesn’t owe anybody anything, never has, but Phil Mickelson’s annual participation in the US Open is seriously putting that to the test.
Lots of golfers have finished second in a US Open once and never gone on to win the tournament. Fewer have a pair of second-place medals from the US Open and no wins. Sam Snead was second four frustrating times in the tournament, costing him the career grand slam.
Mickelson? Not one US Open second-place finish, or two, or even four. Try six, including last year, when he had the lead in the final round, only to come up two shots short to Justin Rose at Merion.
Now Mickelson returns to Pinehurst No. 2, the scene of his first US Open runner-up, in 1999. That year, he watched helplessly on the 18th green — with no knowledge of the fate playing out — as Payne Stewart rolled in a 15-foot par putt to win by one, then took Mickelson’s face in his hands and offered words of consolation, followed by encouragement, since Mickelson would become a father for the first time one day later. Stewart would be dead four months later.
It’s hard to believe that someone without a top-10 finish on the season would be considered the favorite as the 114th US Open begins Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2, but Mickelson will take that weight with him to the 10th tee at 7:51 a.m., ready to lace ’em up and try yet again.
OK, he might not be the logical favorite, or the betting favorite, but he’d certainly qualify as the sentimental one.
“Growing up here in the United States, this is a tournament that I’ve always felt this patriotism to and would love to win, plus with all the close calls, it would really mean a lot to me,” Mickelson said.
“Then to do it right here, where Payne and I had this moment and he talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future US Opens. Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard and this would be a great place to break through and do it.”
Mickelson’s history at the US Open reads like a cruel tease, an unattainable crush, Charlie Brown trying to kick the football only to land on his back with a sad thud every time. In some of the six years Mickelson finished second, he simply was outplayed. In others, he made late mistakes that cost him the tournament, none more memorable than 2006, when he led by one stroke with one hole to play, then closed with a double bogey.
“I am such an idiot,” he famously said after that missed opportunity at Winged Foot.
It took Mickelson nine tries, but Pinehurst started his run of runners-up. That was followed by seconds in 2002 (Bethpage Black, by three shots to Tiger Woods), 2004 (Shinnecock Hills, by two to Retief Goosen), 2006, 2009 (again at Bethpage, by two to Lucas Glover), and 2013.
“Every time I think of the US Open,” Mickelson said last year, “I think of heartbreak.”
How much punishment can one man take on the golf course, from the same tournament?
“Six US Opens where he’s been runner-up, I mean, you’d say that he’s due,” said Rory McIlroy, who won the US Open by eight shots in 2011, when Mickelson did not finish second (he tied for 54th).
“He plays the US Open very well. He’s been unlucky in the past, he’s hit bad shots at the wrong time. If it’s not me that wins it, I don’t think there’s anyone more deserving.
“To keep coming back, to keep picking yourself up, the pressure that he must be under going to every US Open knowing that he’s come so close . . . he just wants to get that one to get the career grand slam. He’s done well [at Pinehurst] in the past, so we shall see.”
With three victories in the Masters, one in the PGA, and last year’s unlikely win at the British Open, Mickelson has five major championships, and needs just the US Open to win all four of the majors at least once. There are only five who have done it: Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods.
“I feel like the five players that have done that have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time,” said Mickelson. “If I’m able to do that, I would look upon my career differently. That’s why it means so much, in addition to the fact that it’s our national championship.”
So how realistic a shot does Mickelson have this week? If you’re going on recent form, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. Mickelson has played in 14 PGA Tour events this season, and his best finish is a tie for 11th, which he’s done twice, including last week in Memphis.
He missed the cut at the Masters for just the second time in his career (matching the number of times he’s gone home early in 23 US Opens), and also missed the cut at the Players Championship. He hasn’t driven the ball well and hasn’t putted well, two trends he’ll need to change if he wants to be successful this week.
Off the course, Mickelson has met with FBI agents regarding an insider-trading probe. He has professed no wrongdoing.
On the course, if Mickelson is concerned that his lackluster play will affect his chances here, he won’t admit to it. In fact . . .
“The flip side is I tend to do well when it’s least expected,” he said.
Despite the poor 2014 results, nobody would be surprised if Mickelson finds himself in the mix come Sunday. If there’s a tournament that could snap him out of this funk, the US Open would be the one. And if there’s a time to win it, good luck finding a better week or locale than this one.
“The expectations of me looking forward to this event for almost a year now and the history that I’ve had here and how much of a great story it would be and how much it would mean to me to win here with what happened with Payne Stewart and my child and all these things, that makes it more difficult,” Mickelson said.
“I tend to do something, play better, like at Muirfield last year, when nobody really expects it and I just kind of come out of nowhere. These are all challenges that I’m facing this week, but I’m also enjoying it.”