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Mickelson dealt another heartbreaker
Justin Rose is a worthy United States Open champion.
The 32-year-old Englishman is not only one of the sport’s true gentlemen but arguably the best striker of a golf ball in the game.
To seal his breakthrough major, he needed to hit three clutch shots on the final two holes at Merion on Sunday, the most demanding finish to any course anywhere.
And who didn’t feel for him as he looked to the heavens, his eyes welling in tears, as he thought on this Father’s Day of his dad, Ken, who taught him to play but was taken by cancer in 2002 when Justin was just 21?
But let’s not kid ourselves.
Phil lost this one.
And to rub a mountain of salt into a wound that’s been festering since the mercurial Californian first played an Open in 1990, he did it on his birthday.
Mickelson now has extended his own record for runner-up finishes — six — in the tournament he most covets.
Sunday’s heartbreak at Merion may not have been as dramatic as his implosion seven years ago at Winged Foot, with a kamikaze, “I’m such an idiot” double bogey on the last hole, but a slow bleed has the same outcome.
“This one's probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” he said.
“Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
The wounds with Mickelson were, as always, self-inflicted.
Colt Knost, a former US Amateur champion, once told Mickelson he was "pretty good with his wedges."
“No, I’m really f’king good with them,” Knost said in a tweet on Sunday that Mickelson responded.
How ironic then that Mickelson blew what he knew would be his best — and, yes, maybe last — opportunity to win a US Open with a wedge in his hand.
The wheels in his head forever spinning, he decided to play at Merion with no driver and five wedges.
Then he twice picked the wrong wedge.
Both fatal shots came, ironically, from the same distance: 121 yards.
The first on the par 3 13th, Merion’s easiest hole.
Trying to be clever, Mickelson took a pitching wedge hoping to spin it back to the pin. Instead, he hit too far, into the spinach behind the green from where he couldn’t get up-and-down.
He effectively made a four at a par 2.
Then on the 15th, he had a gap wedge in his hand, didn’t commit to the swing, hung it out to the left and watched forlornly as it spun all the way to the front right corner of the green.
From there, he had no play with a putter to that back right pin and had to hit a wedge. Another sloppy bogey ensued.
“Those two wedge shots were the two costly shots, I felt,” he would later say, “The two I’ll look back on.”
There were other signs that it wouldn’t be his day, beginning with the fact that his daughter, Amanda, whose graduation he flew back to California to see on Wednesday, came down with strep throat.
Then there was the fact that five or six beautiful putts he hit on the front nine just refused to fall.
And the fact that he turned bogeys into double bogeys on the third and fifth holes.
But all of that seemed to have been rendered irrelevant by a signature Phil moment, when he holed his approach shot on the short par-4 10th hole from 76 yards for an eagle.
He seemed destined to win, but he couldn’t make another birdie.
When Rose signed for a one-over par total, Mickelson needed to make a birdie on the last hole. No one in the field managed a birdie on that hole the entire weekend. It would prove a birdie too far for Mickelson, too.
He was, as always, honest when he was done, speaking of the intense disappointment he felt.
“For me it's very heartbreaking,” he said.
“This could have been the big, really big turnaround for me on how I look at the US Open and the tournament that I'd like to win, after having so many good opportunities.
“Also playing very well here and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity, I felt, heading in; certainly the final round, the way I was playing and the position I was in.”
But perhaps there’s a lesson in all this heartbreak.
Mickelson can play the swashbuckling riverboat gambler at Augusta National and get away with his risky shots because the Masters lets adventurers make up for their mistakes with birdies.
It’s no coincidence that of his four majors, three have come there.
But US Opens are set up by lawyers and accountants and they make you play the game their way: mistakes are punished and usually risk-taking is punished, too.
US Opens require prudence, conservatism, patience, discipline and, in truth, Phil brings none of those things to the table and has never shown much inclination to change.
So in the end, the story of Phil Mickelson and the US Open may have a simple explanation.
Some things just aren’t meant to be.
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