ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson keeps coming back, and presumably, next year at Pinehurst, he will return for what will be his 24th U.S. Open. He claims it to be fun, and maybe in the midst of it, while he’s holing out wedges for eagle to take the lead, it is.
But he is 43 now, 43 on Sunday in fact, with more of his career behind him than ahead. If the Open returns to Merion Golf Club, a glorious, rolling piece of land in the Philadelphia suburbs, Mickelson almost certainly won’t be there. He’ll finally be too old. Maybe that’s good. Why come back to see your own blood stains on the fairway of yet another golf course?
“For me,” Mickelson said, “it’s very heartbreaking.”
Justin Rose, born in South Africa and raised in England, won the 113th U.S. Open Sunday with an even-par round of 70 that left him at 1-over 281 for the tournament.
He did so even though he bogeyed two of the final five holes, even though scarcely a soul in Merion’s grandstands pulled for him. That had nothing to do with Rose, an accomplished and gracious 32-year-old, and everything to do with Mickelson, whose relationship with the U.S. Open has long involved scar tissue, and now has one more open wound, liable to grow infected.
Sunday, Mickelson woke with a one-shot lead, made two double bogeys in his first five holes, then bogeyed three of his final six to close with 74 and tie with Australia’s Jason Day for second – say it again, second – at 3-over 283. The particulars come later, but the wide-angle view is inescapable: Mickelson already held the record for runner-up finishes at the Open with five. Sunday, he extended it to six.
He has three Masters titles and a PGA Championship. And there are moments when those accomplishments scarcely seems to matter.
“This one’s probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” Mickelson said. “Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
So what Sunday leaves us, unfortunately, isn’t as much an opportunity to celebrate Rose, but an excruciating exercise in dissecting Mickelson. It was the same in 2004 at Shinnecock, remembered more for Mickelson, with the lead, three-putting for double bogey at the 17th than it is for Retief Goosen’s victory. It was even worse in 2006 at Winged Foot, where the specifics have become almost a lesson in how cruel golf can be to the psyche and soul.
But because of what happened Sunday, they must be stated again: he held the lead on the 72nd tee, hit his drive into a tent left of the fairway, made an ill-advised attempt to play through some trees, and made double bogey to lose.
Come up with the winner then. Come on. It was Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who has never finished better than a tie for ninth in any other U.S. Open.
That is now the category into which Rose falls, the guy who won when Mickelson lost. It’s unfair, because Rose hit some brilliant shots Sunday – his back-to-back birdies at 12 and 13 took the lead back from Mickelson, who had just holed out a 76-yard wedge for eagle at No. 10 – and he is a worthy champion, ranked fifth in the world.
In last year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah, he birdied the final two holes of his singles match to help spark Europe’s comeback, a 1-up victory. His victim that day: Mickelson.
Rose has, too, been through his own golfing purgatory, not with a specific tournament, but with the sport itself. He was 17 when he finished tied for fourth at the British Open, and he turned pro the following day. He then fell off the golfing globe, missing his first 21 cuts on the European PGA Tour, becoming something of a poster child for golf’s “Too much, too soon.”
He is long since established, though, and this takes him to the next level. He said he put into play a plan this week that he hopes will deliver major championhips – plural – in the next five to 10 years.
“I don’t know if it takes the pressure off,” Rose said. “It’s a moment you can look back on and say childhood dreams come true.”
As for those particulars, the shots Mickelson will pack with his clubs? There are the three-putt double bogeys at the nearly impossible par-3 third and the 495-yard fifth, which played into a steep wind and where Mickelson hit his tee shot to the edge of the hazard.
The eagle at 10 allowed him to pull back from that, with Merion just sitting back and launching haymakers at the field.
At various points, Rose, Mickelson, Day and Hunter Mahan led. But the old East Course, which hadn’t hosted the Open since 1981 and played Sunday at 6,869 yards, wouldn’t let anyone run away.
“Man,” Mahan said, exhausted after his 75 left him in a four-way tie for fourth, “it was brutal out there.”
“Thirteen and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I’ll look back on – where I let it go,” Mickelson said.
Rose has a fine shot to remember, a fairway wood from just off the fringe at 18 that he nearly holed and helped him save par. When he finished, he looked to the sky, and his eyes teared up, remembering his late father.
Behind him, Mickelson needed to birdie the 18th to tie, to force a playoff. But this is the U.S. Open, and as painful as it is, he is Phil Mickelson. So turn off the television, because the ending has already been written.
There would be no tying birdie. Just heartache by the bucket, and another lacerated, Open artery, bleeding all over Merion.