ERIN, Wisconsin — Eighteen years ago, Payne Stewart looked Phil Mickelson closely and directly in the eye and told him that the U.S. Open is not the most important thing in the world. Thursday morning, the brilliant sunshine delivered that same exact message, just as clearly, to the same man.
Not that Mickelson was around to see it. He did not have to be. Having been assured of the beautiful conditions at Erin Hills, he sent word early in the morning (well before 6 a.m. California time) that he was withdrawing from the Open this year. He had held out slim hope for stormy weather, which could have postponed his scheduled afternoon tee time until this morning. No such luck.
The sun was high in the bright blue sky and scores were low, low, low on the leaderboards at the U.S. Open. He missed a glorious day at Erin Hills, one ripe for a terrific score. So be it. He had chosen in advance to have an even better day, watching his daughter Amanda give the valedictory address at her high school graduation in suburban San Diego. That is the same daughter who was born in 1999, right after the first of Mickelson’s six gnawing second-place U.S. Open finishes. Back then, Stewart, the man who beat him, consoled him by grabbing him by the shoulders and earnestly shouting, “You’re going to be a father!”
Implied then was the understanding that Mickelson would go on to win the Open. But that did not happen and it looks like it never will. He turns 47 today and the Open more and more looks to be the province of the young and strong. So be that, too. Staying away Thursday was an easy choice for Mickelson, one that, as far as we can tell, has been universally hailed.
“It’s just one of those things. We’re all parents, and you don’t want to miss that day,” said Ernie Els, his fellow 47-year-old graybeard, who took advantage of the benign conditions to shoot 2-under-par 70. “It’s almost more a parent day than a student day. You take pictures and, I won’t say I was crying, but you know, you get emotional.”
The romantic in golfers and golf fans pictured Mickelson whaling away on those 50-yard wide fairways, honing in with his precise iron shots and making putts on a course that was softened Wednesday by storms and not swept with much wind. “He would have had fun around here, and been able to use his imagination,” said his friend Rickie Fowler, who shot 65 to take the lead. Roberto Diaz of Mexico, the alternate who had been hanging around all week waiting for Mickelson’s decision, got in the field and shot par 72.
But reality would point out that Mickelson was scheduled to play in the afternoon, when it was somewhat breezier than when Fowler scorched the course. Plus, Mickelson has not won a tournament since the 2013 British Open. Young bucks muscle it up better and go lower than the late 40s icons can. Time moves on, the way Amanda Mickelson will go on to study Egyptology at Brown.
Els said golf courses are only going to get longer, which will make it harder for anyone who is, as they say, longer in the tooth. “I played a practice round with a kid from Texas A & M and he was hitting the ball 340 yards, okay? I used to be up there, hitting at 290,” Els said. “I know from my friends who are members at Shinnecock, the whole golf course has been moved back. We’re probably going to be walking 200 yards back to tees from the greens at Shinnecock. That’s how quickly the game has changed.”
Yes, the U.S. Open returns next year to Southampton, another site on the Mickelson Heartbreak Tour. He all but had the trophy in his hands and had the crowd on his side there in 2004, holding the lead on the 17th green. He let it slip away.
Maybe there was a time when the lure of erasing such demons was the most important thing in the world for Mickelson. That time is no more. The time sure was not Thursday. Good for him. Phil Mickelson has graduated.