It was with the 7,277th stroke of his U.S. Open career that Phil Mickelson finally conceded he will never win the only major championship missing from his mantelpiece.
That was the stroke with which he intentionally hit a moving ball on the 13th hole of Saturday’s third round at Shinnecock Hills, a casual, contemptuous swipe that all but acknowledged the quest had finally broken him.
“I’ve had multiple times when I’ve wanted to do that, and I finally did,” he told Fox Sports’ Curtis Strange afterward, sounding for all the world like an entitled, petulant child who has just been busted for torching his parents house.
In that single stroke, Mickelson’s carefully constructed veneer fell away, the years of pained diplomacy and outward optimism with which he greeted every failed, painful tilt at the national Open. It was a quiet scream, seen but not heard.
By the time he emerged from the scorer’s tent, Mickelson had resolved to brazen it out. Asked by Strange if his stunt was disrespectful, he adopted that well-practiced look of wide-eyed surprise. It was the same look we saw four years ago in that infamous Ryder Cup press conference — feigned shock that anyone might think he was throwing captain Tom Watson under a bus as he did exactly that.
“It’s certainly not meant that way,” he said with an approximate attempt at earnestness.
He offered a wane smile. “I had an awesome day.”
There have been plenty of awesome days for Mickelson over the years in this tournament, of course, but this was not one of them. Exactly five years to the day since he last challenged in a U.S. Open — a gutting loss to Justin Rose at Merion — America’s most popular golfer all but called it quits.
Sisyphus has given up rolling his rock on slick, punishing greens without ever getting closer to his long-dreamed of destination.
Mickelson owns three green jackets, a Claret Jug and a PGA Championship, but the U.S. Open is the defining tournament of his career. There was the shootout with Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in ’99 while awaiting the birth of his first child, which launched the family man image he has assiduously cultivated ever since, but never consummated with a Father’s Day victory at the Open.
Later, there was the runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at Bethpage Black, cementing the idea of him as the People’s Champion. Even his gruesome collapse at Winged Foot 12 years ago would be cast by admirers as a positive, the pinnacle of the Arnie-like, go-for-broke style that made him so compelling and beloved.
Mickelson turned 36 on Friday of that ’06 Open. He was the reigning Masters and PGA champion. There was still time.
Not any more.
They’ve played 117 of these Opens, and none has ever been won by a man of Mickelson’s vintage. The competition gets younger, stronger, and longer while he gets older, slower and shorter. We’ve seen old men make improbable runs at majors, but those rare revivals are now limited to the ancient links of the British Open, where guile can occasionally compete with modern power.
It doesn’t happen at the U.S. Open, and today it became apparent that Mickelson knows as much.
That childish swat at a moving ball was tantamount to an admission that his U.S. Open wound will never be cauterized.
If there’s a downside to playing a sport in which careers can last decades, it’s that voids in the trophy cabinet can haunt the athlete. Ted Williams quit at age 42 and left behind questions about when he’d win a World Series. Dan Marino was only 38 when he was able to start sending to voicemail all inquiries about that missing Super Bowl ring.
Phil Mickelson enjoys no such luxury. He arrived at Shinnecock Hills still a viable contender in the eyes of many. And because his past form at upcoming venues offers straws at which true believers may clutch, that delusion has a few years left to run before it finally crashes into the reality that his time has passed.
Mickelson turned 48 Saturday. He marked the occasion in the manner that has become customary over the past 27 years: by disappointing his fans at the U.S. Open for one final, disheartening time.
Golfweek, June 16, 2018.