He Says Heart-Breaking Finish Last Year Won't Deter Him
April 20, 2007
At a championship alternately praised and accursed after 106 years of ethereal moments
and nightmarish happenstance, it stands as perhaps the most brutally frank, introspective
admission in event history.
Phil Mickelson, 0 for 6 in sand saves at last year's U.S. Open, couldn't muster
much out of a greenside bunker on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. His ball rolled
to the fringe, all but eliminating any chance for a playoff with Geoff Ogilvy. (Steve
Head in hands last summer,
stoically tried to come to grips with the most public disappointment of his career.
He had just spent the previous 20 minutes watching his golf ball hit a U.S. Open
hospitality tent, ricochet off a tree and later come to rest in a greenside bunker.
Earlier, one of his shots had landed in a garbage receptacle, which in
is called foreshadowing.
Ultimately, he resignedly signed for a double bogey on the 72nd hole that cost him
the title at Winged Foot Golf Club, precipitating the most memorably self-effacing
line in years: "I am such an idiot."
Had it been anybody but Mickelson, it might have served as a professional epitaph.
Yet for the 1990 U.S. Amateur champion, who briefly wrestled mightily to get his
head around what his brain had wrought, it was fast forgotten as another bump in
the road to the hall of fame.
Residual, permanent damage? Sutures on his psyche? Surely you jest, he said.
"A scar happened in '94, when I broke my leg and they cut it open and stuck in a
rod," said Mickelson of his infamous snow-skiing mishap a few years back. "Now that's
Given his tour trauma in the past, getting his hindquarters kicked by Winged Foot
was hardly a first, which is why he'll most likely survive, if not thrive, during
the 2007 major championship season.
"Losing the Open obviously hurt," said Mickelson, now a four-time runner-up in the
championship, which ties him with
for the most times finishing second and not having won. "But losing the PGA [Championship]
in 2001 hurt, losing the Masters a number of years hurt, and losing the U.S. Open
in 2004 [at Shinnecock Hills] by making double on No. 17 hurt.
"It made a big difference because I'd already proven to myself that I can win majors.
Even though I stumbled, it wasn't nearly as devastating as it would have been had
I never won one."
The aftermath of Winged Foot remains a blur in many ways. In five starts after the
U.S. Open debacle, Mickelson finished no better than 16th. At the Ryder
Cup, he went 0-4-1 in five matches and mostly appeared listless. Sure, he won the
events in the spring of 2006, but after he missed a chance to claim a third major
title in succession at Winged Foot, everything seemingly crumbled. He didn't play
in an official event for almost five months.
All the talk after his Masters victory last spring about how he had become a born-again
strategist, forsaken risky shots for a more conservative approach, throttled down
off the tee and begun taking his medicine when needed, evaporated quicker than his
one-shot lead on the last hole at Winged Foot.
"In golf, you deal with failure a huge majority of the time," Mickelson said. "Even
the best player in the world deals with failure more than he deals with success.
That's part of competing, dealing with failure."
With 30 career victories, third among active players behind only Tiger Woods and
, should Mickelson be forced to explain himself to anybody?
"I don't think you should ever criticize him," said
, who out-dueled Mickelson to win the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic
Club. "Has he not lived up to the talent that he has? Maybe at certain times. But
I mean, look at his record. It's pretty impressive."
Not to put words in anybody's mouth, but that sounds like a double-edged way of
saying that Mickelson has often been a transcendent player, while conjointly asking
if he's maximized his considerable talent. Good points.
Mickelson spent his lengthy offseason emphasizing two areas, the results of which
remain in question. He tried to hone his swing so that his drives didn't miss as
badly to the left, like the one that landed on the hospitality tent adjoining the
18th fairway on Winged Foot's West Course. Yet when Mickelson lost in
a playoff to
at the Nissan Open in February, the left-hander twice shoved drives into the left
rough on Sunday - at the end of regulation and in the playoff - and eventually lost.
At the Masters this year he tied for 24th, primarily struggling with
the driver, although he carried two in the bag.
He also claims to have, somewhat paradoxically, shed 25 pounds of fat and added
15 pounds of muscle thanks to an offseason martial-arts regimen and new diet. Yet
when Mickelson agreed to conduct an interview in the cab of his SUV with a reporter
at the Buick Invitational in January, he had to first clear away a pile of fast-food
wrappers on the front seat.
Mickelson once had a metal rod installed in his leg, but he remains forever a lighting
rod for attracting sarcasm. When Arnold Palmer, appearing as a guest on a Golf Channel
broadcast in January, was told that Mickelson had purportedly added 15 pounds of
muscle in the offseason, the King cracked on the air, "It must be in his shoes."
Mickelson, right, left empty-handed while champion Ogilvy admired the hardware.
With nearly four months of the PGA Tour season already in the books, Mickelson has
been wildly unpredictable. In his first eight stroke-play starts, he won once (AT&T
national Pro-Am) and six times finished outside the top 20. He's also been practicing
with a second coach, Butch Harmon, prompting speculation that he's seeking outside
advice away from longtime swing instructor
Clearly, Mickelson is malleable, which might be his best attribute. He played in
46 majors before he won the 2004 Masters, then added two more Grand Slam titles
since. Only Woods has more majors among active players.
"I think that he's over the hurdle of, 'Can't win one of those,' and it's hard to
fail if you're never there in the situation," said Toms. "Obviously at Winged Foot,
he put himself in that situation, he screwed up, and he's the first one to tell
you that he did.
"But you look at him as one of the guys you have to beat in major championships
now. It was that way before, but he's won three of them now. Now he knows he can
do it, so that makes him endure."
Some of Mickelson friends believe his talent is equal parts blessing and curse.
Sure, he can execute the heroic shot, serve up a little "side sauce" with a deftly
spun chip and save par from almost anywhere. But temptation sometimes leads to reckless
play, for which Mickelson and caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay have often been poked and
"They've got one gear, and that's pretty much, 'Go ahead on,'" said
. "There is not a problem with that. I think that's why he can probably accept it
[defeat] better than somebody else could."
In other words, Mickelson is like a baseball closer. At some point, the pitcher
is bound to serve up a game-losing gopher ball, so it's best to have a short memory.
Taking the long-view, in his case, helps.
"That's what makes him who is he is - he is able to shrug that off," said
Charles Howell III
. "He looks at it as, 'I was in position to win, I had the golf tournament won,
I didn't close it out, but I played 71 excellent holes.' That's what makes him
Just like with the painful face-plant he took on the ski slopes 13 years ago, Mickelson
eventually gets back up, dusts himself, and hurtles off in another direction.
Here's hoping he stays out of the trees.
Steve Ellingis a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usga.org