FARMINGDALE, N.Y — Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy were walking across the putting green in front of Bethpage’s clubhouse early Friday afternoon en route to the scoring area when someone yelled, “Come on Phil, come on Rory, you guys can still win this thing!”
McIlroy smiled, shook his head and said to Mickelson, “If they let us play best ball, we might have a chance.”
It would be a tad strong to say the two men were whistling past the PGA Championship graveyard, but it might take a best-ball-type score for either to get into any sort of contention this weekend.
McIlroy had to be happy just to get the chance to tee it up Saturday. He needed four late birdies on the his second nine—the front—at Bethpage Black to shoot a one-under-par 71, which left him at three-over-par 143 for 36 holes, just inside the cut line.
“If you’d told me after I walked off the 12th green that I was still going to be around for the weekend, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. “So, in that sense I feel good about the way I finished.”
McIlroy started 6-5-6 on the treacherous first three holes of the back nine; that’s five-over-par.
Mickelson was considerably better, but also got hit with an early double-bogey—a 6 at what should be the easiest hole in that stretch, the 11th. He did bounce back to birdie the 12th and, like McIlroy, shot 71, which left him at even par 140 for the first 36 holes.
“I needed to get through the back nine, but I had that double on 11,” he said. “So for me to turn at one-over was OK, but that took a lot of momentum away. If I could have shot par or better on the that back side, the front nine was totally different. You could really get on those nine holes. You saw Rory do it, a lot of guys do it.”
Mickelson did have three birdies on the front nine, but also had three bogeys—two of them on the par 3s. He played just well enough to be able to talk about having a chance on the weekend.
“It feels close,” he insisted. “I’m looking forward to the weekend and there are some low—if you play well—there are some low rounds out there. We’re seeing it, four, five-under-par rounds, and hopefully I need one of those.”
He will almost certainly need two rounds like that to factor on Sunday afternoon.
Mickelson had reason to be optimistic coming in here. He finished second to Tiger Woods the first time the U.S. Open was played on Bethpage’s Black course in 2002 and tied for second behind Lucas Glover in the rain-soaked Open of 2009.
Mickelson started the year very well, finishing second to Adam Long in the Desert Classic, then winning at Pebble Beach three weeks later with a sterling final round 65 to catch Paul Casey. It was his fifth win at Pebble Beach and his 44th PGA Tour victory.
Everyone who can spell the word golf knows that Mickelson will turn 49 on June 16—which just happens to be Father’s Day Sunday this year, meaning it is the day the U.S. Open is scheduled to conclude—at Pebble Beach.
It would be the stuff of a Disney movie if Mickelson finally completed the career Grand Slam by winning the Open that day on a golf course he gets misty-eyed talking about. Mickelson’s grandfather, Al Santos, was one of Pebble Beach’s first caddies exactly 100 years ago, and Mickelson carries a Morgan Head Silver dollar given to him by his grandfather when he plays the golf course.
Mickelson has finished second in the Open six times. He knows his chances are almost certainly down to a precious few. Pebble Beach might be his last, best chance. Of course, as Mickelson has repeatedly pointed out, Pebble Beach in June is a lot different than in February, but he should certainly feel comfortable there. What’s more, among the five men who have won an Open at Pebble Beach—Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods, Graeme McDowell—only McDowell didn’t have a February win on the Monterey Peninsula before winning in June.
But Pebble’s a month away. For the moment, Mickelson would love to find a couple of low numbers this weekend on a golf course that will yield them if you play nearly perfect golf.
Mickelson is immensely popular in the New York area—he’s almost certain to be the U.S. Ryder Cup captain when the matches are played here in 2024. Every birdie he made on Friday drew huge cheers along with the characteristic Mickelson sheepish grin and cap tug.
There are still plenty of good swings left in Mickelson, but there’s also little doubt that their number is dwindling. Just as there’s almost no way to know which Phil will show up on the golf course (see Shinnecock, Saturday 2018, 13th hole), there’s also almost no way to know which Phil will show up off the golf course.
Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open six times. He knows his chances are almost certainly down to a precious few. Pebble Beach might be his last, best one.
Earlier in the week, he declined the PGA of America’s stock request to come speak to the media prior to the start of the championship. As a past PGA champion, twice a runner-up at Bethpage and a certain future Ryder Cup captain, he was an automatic to be asked to come to the media center.
“Second or third on our list,” a PGA official said. “Behind Tiger [Woods] but probably not anyone else.”
Mickelson said thanks, but no thanks.
On Thursday, Mickelson shot a one-under-par 69, but didn’t get off the golf course until close to 7 o’clock. With an early tee time Friday, it would have been understandable if he wanted to get through his media paces as quickly as possible.The PGA official in charge of letting players know what they are needed to do post-round forgot to let Mickelson know that the Golf Channel wanted to get him on camera one-on-one after he had gone through his initial questioning. When Mickelson finished, he saw longtime Golf Channel producer Andrew Bradley standing near the podium. Before Bradley could make a request, Mickelson said: “Do you guys need me?” He then patiently answered a half-dozen questions.
Friday, he was brief, clearly eager to get inside before the expected rain started to fall in earnest. He answered four questions—no rancor—but not in the expansive mood he can be in after rounds.
He headed inside to the clubhouse, still hoping for a good weekend and that Disney-style ending a month from now. Of course, no one—including Mickelson—knows when Sweet Phil might turn into Sour Phil.
As Mickelson headed to the clubhouse, someone commented that, in spite of being well back of Brooks Koepka, Mickelson seemed to be in good spirits. A member of the British media said, “It’s early. Remember last time he was on Long Island [Shinnecock] he didn’t hit a moving ball until Saturday.”
To the fans here, there’s only one Phil—the one they all adore. If they had their way, he and McIlroy would be allowed to play best-ball on the weekend. Whether that would be good enough is something we’ll never know.