Phil takes a full body slam

June 25, 2007

Talk about a massacre at Winged Foot. The 2006 U.S. Open was grim from start to non-finish, and Phil Mickelson will be saying, "I am such an idiot," for months, if not years. Meaning he gave away this Open after the worst driving exhibition since the Greyhound bus ran into Ben Hogan.

It's the kind of collapse that could have been a career-ender for Phil if he hadn't started winning majors the past couple of years with semi-regularity. But losing in surprising ways has happened to other players of note, including Nicklaus and Palmer, to name just two.

In the 1975 Open at Medinah, Jack stood on the 16th tee in the final round trailing by a stroke, only to bogey the final three holes. In the locker room afterward, someone—me—asked, "Jack, did you know you were right there with three to play?"

"Of course," Jack said, and shrugged. "But I haven't played well all week."

Worse, there was Arnold at Augusta in 1961. A par would have given him his second straight Masters, but after accepting congratulations in the fairway, Arnold hit his approach into a bunker, bladed a shot out of it and made a double-bogey 6 that gave the green jacket to Gary Player.

Arnold losing the seven-stroke lead to Billy Casper on the back nine at Olympic in '66? More of a slow dribble.

Jean Van de Velde's 7 at Carnoustie when a 6 would have won the '99 British? Can't beat that.

Some like to put Sam Snead in the same category for making an 8 on the 72nd hole of the '39 U.S. Open to miss a playoff by two, but the deal with Sam is hard to compare. He was playing early, wasn't sure how he stood and thought he might need a 4.

Phil had hit only two fairways in the final round at Winged Foot, and yet the Open was still his with only three holes to play. He had a two-stroke lead, thanks to the unsightly rabble that was loitering, looking as if they'd shopped for their shirts and slacks in the women's department at Labels for Less. Then so much dizzy stuff began happening you wanted to shout, "Nobody gets this trophy—nobody!"

Jim Furyk's four-footer for par that would have gotten him into a playoff didn't drop, and Padraig Harrington missed by two shots after bogeying the last three (and tripling the 18th the day before).

At one point the championship seemed to belong to the much-maligned, long-suffering Colin Montgomerie. He stood in the 72nd fairway with a clear second shot to the green for a par 4 that, it turns out, would have wrapped it up. Yeah, Majorless Monty. That guy, who'd kept hanging around and who had unconsciously holed a thousand-yard birdie putt at the 71st.

So . . . cue the bagpipes.

Nope. Kill the bagpipes.

Monty hit the approach short, burying the ball in the Winged Foot rough not far from what we call the Greg Norman Pavilion, where the Shark went wide right in the '84 Open. Double-bogey 6 for Monty, one shot short. "You wonder sometimes why you put yourself through this," he said after his fifth runner-up finish in the majors—three in the U.S. Open—and a brief dust-up with one of the gendarmes.

In the meantime, this skinny Geoff Ogilvy person holed a chip on the 71st for a par. So Ogilvy, 29, with only two PGA Tour victories to recommend him, was only one behind Phil.

Ogilvy, described by his caddie as "a handful" when they started working together seven years ago, has grown up. He made an All-Australian up-and-down from short of the green at the last hole to reach the house with what appeared to be the surprising silver medal for runner-up at five-over-par 285.

So after a bogey at the 16th and a par from a drive into a trash bag on the 17th, there's Phil on the last tee, ready to be only the third pro in history to win three majors in a row, joining Hogan and Tiger Woods on that short list. But Phil's got the driver in his hands again. Oh, boy. The same club that had been torturing him all day. He'd been going both ways with it, mostly hooks early, then slices later. Why not a 4-wood or even an iron off the tee? Phil said he figured he'd be too far back if he found more rough, but you tell me why these guys don't have a go-to club when they have to find a fairway.

The last drive was a pitiful slice off the so-called "Champions Pavilion" into trampled grass. And though 1,800 trees had been taken down before the Open, a big one was between Phil and the green. He had a shot, but it required another big slice around the tree. Phil knows the situation: par to win, bogey to tie. (Which guy would you have liked in an 18-hole playoff, Mickelson or Ogilvy?) Phil tried with a 3-iron, but the "over-cut" was his only dead-on shot of the day, striking the tree and going, oh, 25 yards.

"Like getting hit by a lightning bolt," said Rick Smith, Phil's swing guru. After an 8-iron into a fried-egg lie in the front-left bunker, a blast across the sloping green into more rough, a gouged chip and a putt, Phil had a double-bogey 6 to lose by a stroke. "Pretty surreal," Ogilvy said.

But classy guy that Phil is, he stuck around for interviews, forced some smiles, signed some autographs and left many of us wondering if the commodore would have done the same thing. Tiger was hoping to become the first player to win a major while staying on a yacht—his 155-foot Privacy—but after a nine-week layoff he had missed his first 36-hole cut in a major since he became a pro. Missed it even though he turned a couple of 82s into a couple of 76s. His cut streak ended at 39, in a tie with Nicklaus. Quite simply, Tiger wasn't ready, and he picked the wrong week and the wrong course not to be ready.

What was left for the commodore to do, as everyone else fell apart? Figure he was lucky to leave early, one supposed.