There is no need to read between the lines about Phil Mickelson’s U.S. Open angst. It is right there as a clear oral history, totally obvious between quotation marks. For instance:
“You’re going to be a father!”
Payne Stewart consoling Mickelson at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, right after Stewart defeated him. The assumption was that Mickelson would get many more chances to win the Open, which turned out to be true, and that he would win one or more, which has not happened. Instead, Pinehurst was the first of six wrenching second-place finishes for a golfer who now is a five-time major champion yet still needs the U.S. Open to complete the vaunted career Grand Slam.
“I am such an idiot.”
Mickelson after having been too aggressive, trying to recover from a wayward left tee shot on No. 18 at Winged Foot in 2006. He tied for second.
“Happy Birthday to you . . . ”
In song, at the practice green and various spots on the course, from galleries at Bethpage Black in 2002, where he finished second. In one of the most interesting turns in the whole saga, the Long Island crowd simply and suddenly just adopted him and never has turned away.
Should he make the cut at Shinnecock Hills this week, he no doubt will hear the same tune again Saturday as he turns 48 — the oldest age at which anyone ever has won a major (Julius Boros, 1968 PGA). No doubt, time is not on Mickelson’s side, but geography is.
That is the fascinating part of the lefthanded golfer’s quest to win the one title that has kept eluding him. He is a lifelong California guy who went to college in Arizona and has no roots in the Northeast, but the entire New York area treats him as if he had been born in Babylon or Bensonhurst. The affection came out of the blue at a time when Tiger Woods was at the top of his game and height of his fame. Woods was the player that fans at every stop came to see and for whom they all cheered.
Crowds at Bethpage certainly backed Woods as he won the Open. But they also had room for Mickelson in their hearts, and their lungs. “Hey, Phil, we’re tired of going ‘Oooooooh!’ ” one fan yelled, acknowledging the sound a gallery makes when a putt just misses. Someone else shouted, “Do it for your birthday! Do it for Father’s Day!”
Instantly, rooting for Phil became a thing (to use a 2010s expression for a 2002 event).
“I think at the time, it had to do a lot with Tiger’s aloofness, the way he’d look through you rather than recognizing you were there,” said Joe Rehor, who was the pro at Bethpage for 40 years and was there for both Opens. “Phil was always outgoing and always said the right things to the press. I can only relate it back to David Duval, who is my buddy. He always said to me, ‘You know what? The fans are what make us.’ ”
Mickelson embraced and acknowledged the fans here, always smiling at them and admiring their comments. The consensus in the golf world is that he will be awarded the captaincy of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2024, when the event comes to Bethpage.
So, he will have something of a home-course advantage at Shinnecock, where he finished tied for fourth in 1995 and, you guessed it, second in 2004.
“Well the difficult thing for me is I continue to put a little bit too much pressure on myself in the Majors now because I know that I don’t have a ton of time to win them, especially U.S. Opens,” he said earlier this spring. “But these next two U.S. Opens, Shinnecock and Pebble Beach, give me two really good opportunities. So, I need to get my game sharp, but I really need to be on those weeks and in the past I’ve been on at Shinnecock and I’m hopeful to do it again.”
Whether he can do that is an open question. Mickelson has had a good season, winning the WGC-Mexico Championship and contending in a handful of other tournaments. But he did admit at The Players that energy can be a concern for someone his age (and it showed there, as he missed the cut by a large margin).
It has been five years since he won a major, the British Open. He has not done well in a U.S. Open since his most recent tie for second, at Merion in 2013.
Still, he invites the feeling that something dramatic is right around the corner. He was a major player in last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills without even playing. He missed it so he could be at the high school graduation of the daughter who was born right after his loss to Stewart.
A victory in the Open would be the ultimate last word for a golfer who always has been skillful at providing his own epithets. At Bethpage in 2009, he made a stirring run after having taken time off to be with his wife, Amy, as she recovered from breast cancer. He finished in a three-way tie for second and saw how U.S. Golf Association officials were flummoxed about who should get the runner-up medal.
Mickelson, who has more than his share of those, quickly said, “I’m good.”