Phil Mickelson turned 43 on June 16. He woke up on that Sunday morning as the leader of the U.S. Open at Merion. He was passed by Justin Rose late that afternoon, could not find a birdie on Merion's treacherous closing holes and wound up tied for second with Jason Day.
This was Mickelson's sixth second-place finish in the U.S. Open. The Open loss of which we're always reminded was at Winged Foot in 2006, when Phil's foolish decisions led to a double bogey on the 72nd hole and gave the championship to Geoff Ogilvy.
I've always felt the loss to Payne Stewart in 1999 at Pinehurst was more destructive to Phil's career. Hardcore golf fans still can recall Mickelsson missing a little putt to open the door for Stewart. And then in slow-motion replay Johnny Miller telling us how Mickelson, when under pressure, had a tendency to flatten out the blade and miss short putts.
Mickelson was 29 then and still without a major victory. If he had won that Sunday, he wouldn't have had to play the next 18 majors with that burden and you could probably add three or four more to the total for this amazingly talented golfer.
He still was looking for the first major when I was walking in his gallery at Augusta a couple of years later. There are two small moments that I remember:
On the sixth hole, the par-3 with the green on a hillside, Phil left himself on the bottom of that slanted surface -- a terrible position. He followed with a great roll to get near the cup on the high right side. Loud cheers, and then he missed the 18-inch putt and made bogey.
His legion of fans groaned and left shaking heads.
On the eighth hole, the par-5 that runs from a valley steeply up hill, Phil tried to get home and hit his second shot well left, behind the mounds that protect from the green. For the gallery on the right side of his green, you couldn't even see the top of his head over there.
But he hit one of those Phil flop shots, and here came the ball, over the mounds, landing softly on the green, and then trundling toward the pin. It settled underneath the cup, a 3-foofter uphill for birdie. And then he missed it and made par ... a bad result on any of Augusta's par 5s.
Right then, watching those lost chances as he pursued the lead at Augusta, I doubted if Mickelson ever would win a major. But he did, finally in 2004 at Augusta, and then back-to-back majors with the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol and the 2006 Masters, and then another Masters over the now-hexed Lee Westwood in 2010, and then this Sunday ...
Phil said the closing 66 to win the British at Muirfield was probably his best round of golf ever, and he was probably right. With carnage all around, including another weekend flop by Tiger Woods, Phil was magnificent down the stretch on Muirfield's marble greens.
After he was beaten again at Merion, we kicked around this topic on the public airwaves the next afternoon:
Will Mickelson be remembered more for his wins or losses? I went with his losses -- citing his age of 43, and the unlikelihood that he would be able to add to his total of four majors.
Five weeks later, Mickelson won the next one, at Muirfield.
The man is irrepressible.
And now, with titles in three of the four majors, Mickelson has become our modern-day Sam Snead -- a legend, an all-time great, with the seconds at the U.S. Open as a quirk on his resume.
Snead won three Masters, three PGAs and one British, and was second in the U.S. Open four times. Sam did this in an era when there was much less quality competition.
Throw in that factor -- depth of quality competition -- and I'd put Phil ahead of Snead on a list of all-time greats. Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Tom Watson are 1 through 4 (in that order), and it's a wrestling match for fifth among Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Mickelson and Lee Trevino (perhaps in that order).
My opinion. My list. Don't tell me about Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen or Harry Vardon. I don't care.
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