ARDMORE, Pa. — All the good people on Earth, from the United States and Canada to Scotland and Europe to Japan and Australia to South Africa and South America, everywhere that golf is played seriously, rooted for Phil Mickelson on Sunday at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, all of them, 100 percent.
If you didn’t, you are bad, and you know it. Mickelson, runner-up in his national championship five times, led entering Sunday on his birthday, which is Father’s Day.
That coincides with his very public adoration of his blond wife and three blond children, one of whom he flew coast-to-coast red-eye to see graduate from junior high school, meaning he got little sleep before Round 1.
Phil is a prince, he really is.
But on Sunday, on a day when a 1-over-par 71 would have won this U.S. Open and a 72 would have put him in a playoff with England’s Justin Rose, Mickelson shot 74 and lost again.
In all, 28 players shot 72 or lower in the fourth round. Merion played hard, but not that hard. Phil couldn’t do it.
So, he lost. Or, rather, finished second for the sixth time in the Open, an unsurpassed silver accomplishment in a world that only has eyes for gold.
That is what I usually love about sports. They don’t pay off on cheesy greeting card emotions. At the highest levels of the most difficult games, the true hard-won thing itself is much more valuable than mere vindicated sentimentality. That’s why the non-fiction victories of real life are so much better than fantasy.
This superb but hard-hearted U.S. Open may be the exception, at least for me. If there was ever an event, a day, a protagonist, when I wanted bathos and soap opera to win, regardless of the actual score, this was it. Phil wears his heart on his sleeve. By now, his whole wardrobe is crimson.
Then Mickelson came in after his defeat, what he called the “worst” of all his U.S. Open “heartbreaks,” and with his gracious honesty, his matter-of-fact expert analysis of his own shortcomings, proved once again that, sometimes, the true champion is the man himself, not just his score.
If there is a Man In The Arena Award for those who risk themselves, who expose their failings for the sake of a chance to be truly special, who stick their hands in the fickle Pholdin’ Phil flame of snark culture, no matter how often they’ve been burned before, it should be The Mickelson Award.
“I should have made bogey on those two holes, the third and the fifth, and [instead] I let them both become double bogeys,” he said, correctly. On the fifth, he took four shots from 117 yards, including three putts.
“I hung tough. I got lucky with eagle at the 10th hole,” he said of his 76-yard shot that trickled into the hole. That put him back ahead, but only momentarily as Rose answered with two birdies.
“Thirteen and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I’ll look back on — where I let it go,” Mickelson said. “Those two wedge shots, at the [121-yard] 13th I had too much club. At the 15th, I quit on it and left it short and left — dead. Those two wedge shots were the costly shots.”
Who finishes second in the Open for the sixth time, twice by one shot and, including this week, three times by two shots, and then puts his finger precisely on the most painful points and pushes? Mickelson does.
Maybe I’ll think of somebody who wants to win so badly, hates to lose so much and is still so gracious in defeat. Give me a few weeks.
“For me, it’s very heartbreaking. This is very possibly my best chance to win the Open with the way I was playing, where I was [leading after three rounds] and how much I loved this golf course,” said Mickelson. “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. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Mickelson said it with such absence of theatricality, no play for pity, just pointing out that it was his own fault for those two double bogeys on the front, those two lousy wedge shots on the back, that he handed away his chance, that you wanted to say, “Pick it up, Phil, that one’s good.”
But, you can’t.
When young, Mickelson had a strain of phony, which he gradually got out of his system. He grew, fixed a couple of bad habits and won the Masters three times. He signs every autograph. He wants to help you, he really does. What Arnold Palmer once was to his fans — really there in the moment, looking you in the eye, appreciating your feelings for him — that’s the final mature version of Mickelson.
On course, he’s a spectacularly gifted, brave and sometimes recklessly silly golfer. He makes your best mistakes, plus the shots you can’t even imagine are possible. He’s a golf genius, honest. But he’s not Open champ.
Yet there was one moment when the 25,000 here would’ve sworn he would be, when every kind of karma was on his side. When his wedge-shot eagle on the 10th disappeared, Mickelson jumped in the air three times, pumping both arms over his head, then exchanged a fist bang with caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay.
That was the shot, so typical of Mickelson — the eagle to undo the damage of an unnecessary double bogey — that would be replayed forever. Then Rose made back-to-back birdies ahead of him at the 12th and 13th holes to claim the lead alone once more. And Mickelson never got it back.
At the 18th, Mickelson needed to sink a nearly impossible 40-yard shot from off the green to tie. He missed the pin by a foot, rolled off the back and took a bogey, creating the final two-shot margin. But if he’d merely needed to get up and down, he probably would have.
Will Phil ever have another day, another chance, like this one? Maybe not. But he has three green jackets to go with his six long black mourning coats. He has a PGA Championship, too. He has wins by the dozen, fans by the millions and something that even trophies can’t truly duplicate.
Faced with the worst experience his game could offer, and a sixth dose of that bile to boot, Phil Mickelson showed the absolute best in himself.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/