ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson keeps coming back to take another lashing, 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 here, it’s so far off. 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, spanning a 14-year period.
This happens, then, almost every other year. He has three Masters titles and a PGA Championship. And there are moments when those accomplishments scarcely seem to matter.
“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,” Mickelson said. “Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
So what Sunday leaves us, unfortunately, isn’t as much an opportunity to celebrate Rose, but another 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 17 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. The end result was double bogey, and a loss by one.
Come up with the winner then. Come on. It was Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who has not 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 his 76-yard wedge for eagle at 10. 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 just shy of his 18th birthday when he finished tied for fourth at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, 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 golf’s poster child for “Too much, too soon.”
“There’s a lot of water under the bridge,” Rose said. “My learning curve has been steep from that point. I sort of announced myself on the golfing scene, probably before I was ready to handle it, and golf can be a cruel game.”
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 championships — 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 on the private jet that will take him back to his San Diego home, there are the three-putt double bogeys at the nearly impossible par-3 third and the 495-yard par-4 fifth. The eagle at 10 allowed him to overcome those, 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. The top seven finishers Sunday played the brilliant-but-evil five-hole finishing stretch in 12 over, with three birdies among them.
“Man,” Mahan said, exhausted after his 75 left him in a four-way tie for fourth, “it was brutal out there.”
It is, Mickelson knows, a brutal event. When he got to the 121-yard 13th, he trailed Rose by one, and launched a wedge through the green. Of the top seven finishers in the tournament, only Billy Horschel joined Mickelson in making even one bogey at 13 all week. Mickelson bogeyed it twice.
And at the par-4 15th, he had 121 yards in, a wedge in his hand. “I quit on it,” he said, and his bogey there kept him from keeping pace with Rose.
“Thirteen and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I’ll look back on — where I let it go,” Mickelson said.
Now, how will he let this experience go? Rose has a fine shot to remember, a 3-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 birdie at 18 to tie, to force a playoff. But this is the U.S. Open, and 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.