Another One Gets Away
Winged Foot might have been more disappointing, but Bethpage may have been the Open Phil Mickelson wanted most
Striding toward the 15th tee in the final round of the U.S. Open last Monday, Phil Mickelson crossed the road that sets off Bethpage Black's self-contained homestretch and was engulfed by a welcoming cacophony in what had just become the most raucous and emotionally raw arena in major championship golf.
In fact, Mickelson was its architect. By playing the previous six holes four under to tie for the lead with Lucas Glover, Lefty was in the midst of his most impressive move ever in the late stages of a U.S. Open, and it promised bounteous rewards all around.
Foremost was a long-awaited first Open title that would give Mickelson a third leg on a career Grand Slam and exorcise the ghosts of Pinehurst, Shinnecock and, especially, Winged Foot. With it would come the silver trophy his wife Amy had poignantly asked him to bring back as the centerpiece for the hospital room where in the coming days she will recover from surgery for breast cancer.
The assembled multitudes wanted their prize, too, which besides just the thrill of being a witness to history would include an acknowledgement of the special energy New York sports fans believe they can provide their favorites. Also at stake was a chance for Bethpage Black to become the location of the kind of Open victory that transcends pure golf skill and runs over into the realm of universal human drama -- as Merion did for Ben Hogan in 1950, Congressional for Ken Venturi in 1964 and Torrey Pines for Tiger Woods last year.
The expectant fervor led to rhythmic chants of "Let's go Phil-iil," and even "Let's go A-my," all of which Mickelson met with eye contact and the thumbs-up gesture that became his staple at Bethpage. But with four more holes remaining, anxiousness lurked. Mickelson pushed his drive into the rough on the severely uphill 459-yard par 4, and as he assessed his second shot from the rough, a lone voice called out, "Don't let us down now, Phil." The words, loaded enough with portent to go unacknowledged, hung in the air.
And as they so often do when a major victory seems so close, the things that had seemed easy became hard. After one of his finest approaches of the championship -- an 18-degree hybrid from 209 yards that carried onto the green and ran to the back fringe and left a perilous, downhill 30-footer -- Mickelson missed a three-foot par putt to fall a stroke behind. On the next his 40-footer for birdie rolled some eight feet past, and though he bravely holed the comebacker, the effort likely left him wobbly.
On the 207-yard 17th, the amphitheater par 3 where a packed grandstand sang "Happy Birthday" to Mickelson at the 2002 Open -- and a hole he birdied in the first two rounds -- his slightly flared 4-iron into the wind came up short in the rough. His pitch was short of great, and his remaining uphill eight-footer was just plain short. The suddenness with which the charged atmosphere went completely flat was eerily reminiscent of the 71st hole at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, where with two misses from short range Mickelson handed the title to Retief Goosen.
Mickelson fought back with a huge drive on the par-4 72nd that left him less than 50 yards from the pin, but he was unable to summon a heroic flop shot when he most needed it and ended with a 25-footer for birdie that he missed, allowing Glover, who stabilized admirably on the closing nine, to cruise home.
The immediate reaction was that Mickelson had teased with another brilliant run he couldn't finish, much as he had two months ago at the Masters, when his pyrotechnic front-nine charge to within two strokes of the lead stopped with a badly mishit 9-iron into Rae's Creek on the short 12th. The exasperation among the Phil faithful was greater at Bethpage, in part because the Open is the championship where four times now he has had at least a share of the lead with three holes to go but has never even gotten to a playoff. Instead, he is the only player in history to finish second in the U.S. Open five times, surpassing Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Of that illustrious foursome, Mickelson for the moment has the most in common with Snead, the one who never won the Open.