Oakmont, Pa. – Phil Mickelson has lost so creatively at so many U.S. Opens that he has to use different adjectives to describe different failures.
At Merion in 2013, when he played the last seven holes in 3 over par to make Justin Rose a champion? “My most disappointing failure,” he called it.
At Winged Foot in 2006? “My most heartbreaking,” he said in his next breath.
Mickelson has finished second at the U.S. Open a record six times. He categorizes those failures with the melancholy of a lovelorn spinster recalling failed romances.
They all hurt, and they were all different.
In 1999 at Pinehurst, he promised to leave during the final round if his wife went into labor, but hung around to see Payne Stewart sink his winning, career-defining putt, then grab Mickelson by the face and tell him he was going to be a great father.
In 2002 at Bethpage Black, he played understudy as Tiger Woods went wire-to-wire and beat him by three strokes in the least surprising and least disappointing of Mickelson’s losses.
In 2004 at Shinnecock, coming off his first major championship at the Masters, Mickelson bogeyed the last two holes on Saturday, took a one-shot lead after the 70th hole, then three-putted from five feet on the 71st to lose to Retief Goosen.
In 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson overcame horrid driving to lead by two after 69 holes and held a one-shot lead on the 18th tee. Then he hit a hospitality tent, a tree and a bunker, making a double-bogey, losing to Geoff Ogilvy and calling himself an “idiot.”
In 2009 at Bethpage, he eagled the 13th on Sunday to take the lead, then withered down the stretch and lost to Lucas Glover.
And in 2013 at Merion, he held the lead three times on Sunday but collapsed down the stretch as Rose won.
It is a vivid palette of failure, casting Mickelson’s career in blue. He has won five major championships. Had he won, say, at Winged Foot, Mickelson would have joined Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan in winning three consecutive majors in the modern era. It would have given him a chance to become the second player, along with Woods, to win four straight.
It would have at least temporarily elevated him past Woods in the golf world during Tiger’s prime. And it would mean that today Mickelson would be one of six players to win a career Grand Slam, along with Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods.
A U.S. Open victory early in his career might have led to more success in what Mickelson reverently calls “our national championship,” and with, say, three more majors, he would be tied with Tom Watson for the sixth most all-time.
Instead, Mickelson reached the worrisome age of 46 Thursday without his most coveted title. Only one golfer older than 46 has won a major — Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA.
“There is nothing that would mean more to me than to cap off my career with a win here at the U.S. Open,” he said on Wednesday at Oakmont. “Something that I’ve come close six times and that I’ve played well in the past but never have had that elusive win, where I’ve been able to capture the other three.
“It’s my national open. It would mean the world to me.”
His foibles and strengths are on display this week, as well as his most painful failures. He left Oakmont after a Monday practice round to spend Tuesday at his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation, perhaps costing himself valuable preparation time. And he spent part of his news conference Wednesday parrying questions about accusations of insider trading.
Mickelson is famous for taking gambles — and simply gambling.
He’s won five majors, yet this week is known for six second-place finishes.
“My career is built on failure,” he said.
That could be said of any successful golfer. When it’s one player against a field, frequent failure is guaranteed.
It’s the late collapses that haunt. Disappointing? Heartbreaking? Mickelson might need a thesaurus to describe the rest.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org