No silver lining: US Open might be the best major for Mickelson if he can ever win it

  • Article by: DOUG FERGUSON , AP Golf Writer
  • Updated: June 19, 2013 - 6:13 AM
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Phil Mickelson on his final hole during the fourth round of the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., June 16, 2013. Justin Rose, of England, won the 2013 U.S. Open just ahead of Phil Mickelson and Jason Day. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

ARDMORE, Pa. — The U.S. Golf Association is not opposed to inflicting cruel and unusual punishment at its premier championship, so here's something it might want to consider.

Award the "Phil Mickelson Medal" to the runner-up in the U.S. Open.

There is precedent. The U.S. Open champion has received a gold medal ever since this brute of a tournament began in 1895, and yet the USGA tinkered with 117 years of tradition by last year changing the name to the "Jack Nicklaus Medal."

An argument can be made that Nicklaus, a four-time champion, isn't even the face of the U.S. Open. Bobby Jones won it four times in eight years. The remarkable career and comeback of Ben Hogan was defined by the U.S. Open. He won his four titles in six years, including the year he couldn't defend because he was recovering from near-fatal injuries after a head-on collision with a bus.

But there is no disputing who has cornered the market in silver.

Mickelson broke the U.S. Open record with his fifth runner-up finish in 2009 at Bethpage Black. There was a three-way tie for second that year with David Duval and Ricky Barnes, and the USGA had only one medal to present at the closing ceremony.

"I've got four of those," Mickelson said. "I'm good."

Sam Snead was a runner-up four times, and that doesn't even include the 1939 U.S. Open in Philadelphia when he had a two-shot lead with two holes to play. He made bogey on the 17th and, not knowing the score, played the par-5 18th aggressively and took a triple bogey. Snead also lost in a playoff to Lew Worsham in 1947 at St. Louis when there was a dispute over who was away on the last hole. Worsham called for a measurement, Snead went first and missed a 3-footer to lose by one.

So maybe Mickelson has that going for him. He hasn't lost in a U.S. Open playoff yet.

There's still time, of course, and that's the good news. The hunch — the hope — is that Mickelson will come back for one more shot, even if that means another kick in the gut for a guy who already has had the wind knocked out of him enough.

Don't read too much into the golf course.

There's a lot of chatter about the U.S. Open returning next year to Pinehurst No. 2, where Mickelson was runner-up for the first time in 1999 to Payne Stewart. But what about Pinehurst in 2005, when Lefty was 12 shots out of the lead in a tie for 33rd?

Also on the schedule are newcomers Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, along with Oakmont, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot, which will take Mickelson to his 50th birthday. His advancing age is a greater factor than where the U.S. Open is played. Because Mickelson can win — and fail — anywhere.

Despite his record six silver medals, the U.S. Open is the one major that Mickelson has had the most chances to win.

He plays the Masters consistently better, and he has won three green jackets, but Mickelson had only three other reasonable chances to win at Augusta National.

Mickelson has had only two good shots at the British Open, in 2004 at Royal Troon and in 2011 at Royal St. George's. And while he won the PGA Championship in 2005 at Baltusrol, his only other chances were at Valhalla in 1996, Atlanta in 2001 when David Toms beat him with a par putt on the last hole, and Whistling Straits in 2004 when he finished two shots out of a playoff.

But the U.S. Open? Lefty seems to be in the hunt every other year.

He twice had chances at Shinnecock Hills. He played the par-5 16th hole in 6-over par for the week in 1995. That would be operator error. In 2004, Mickelson ran into a great putting performance from Retief Goosen, who one-putted the last six holes on greens so fast they barely had any grass. Mickelson contributed to his runner-up finish with a three-putt from 5 feet above the hole on No. 17 for a double bogey.

Mickelson gave a valiant effort at Bethpage Black in 2002. He started the day five shots behind Tiger Woods, which was not a fair fight. Mickelson was six shots behind going into the final round at Bethpage in 2009 and was tied for the lead with five holes to play. He missed a 3-foot putt on the 15th and an 8-footer on the 17th.

He was right there at Pebble Beach in 2010, the most visibly angry he's been over how the USGA let the greens get away in the last round. How his birdie putt stayed out on No. 14 in the final round is one of golf's many mysteries.

Every discussion about Mickelson and U.S. Open has to include Winged Foot in 2006. He had a one-shot lead and made double bogey on the last hole by trying to hit 3-iron around a tree from left of the fairway. If he had punched it down the fairway, he had a good chance at par and at worst made bogey. Instead, he delivered a line that lives in U.S. Open infamy. "I am such an idiot," he said.

As for Merion?

"This was my best chance of all," Mickelson said. "I had a golf course I really liked. I felt this was as good as opportunity as you could ask for. It really hurts."

He had the outright 54-hole lead for the first time, though add some U.S. Open reality — seven guys were separated by two shots, which in effect is like having no lead at all. Mickelson didn't blow this one, not as he did at Winged Foot. Everyone makes mistakes in the final round of golf's toughest test.

Mickelson had a pair of three-putts on the front nine for double bogey, another on the back nine when his first "putt" was with his wedge. The USGA had him for 37 putts in the final round. What let him down were his wedges — too strong on No. 5 and No. 13, too weak on No. 15, three holes that cost him four shots.

Justin Rose three-putted the 11th. He nearly shanked a bunker shot on the 14th. He three-putted the 16th.

What will be remembered is how Rose saved his best two swings for the final hole, including that 4-iron that he said might have made Hogan proud. And this U.S. Open will be remembered for Mickelson leaving with another silver medal. No one ever said golf was fair.

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