Where there would have been a rambunctious pro-Phil crowd, the absence of spectators meant the viewers qualified as a smattering. Where blood vessels might have coursed with certain products, not a single witness seemed even vaguely tipsy. Where there would have been the kind of hospitality tent Mickelson thwacked with his errant drive in 2006, way off to the left, the stretch beside No. 18 spends this week completely tentless. Where there might have been well-wishers who remember 2006 and the last time Mickelson reached this No. 18 in a U.S. Open, there was just the novel, spectator-less hush of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
A small plane floated lazily — and audibly — overhead. Those present at the tee included three golfers, three caddies, nine TV crew members, two still photographers, roughly 12 volunteers and staffers and at least two busy squirrels. It was debatable whether to count that guy sitting in a cart way behind that tree over there. One volunteer stood near his New York Giants folding chair. It was hard to know Mickelson’s score (8 over par) without checking a phone; count those group scoreboards that travel from hole to hole among things sacrificed in a pandemic.
For a few haunted seconds, Mickelson stood just beside the sign:
Then he hit it poorly left, but not that poorly left.
Fourteen blurry years and three pandemic months had gone by since June 18, 2006, and Mickelson had won a third Masters and a first British Open in between to hike his major total to five, but any brain following golf could connect Thursday to back then straightaway.
Back then, Mickelson had a one-shot lead in the only major he has never won and the one major he wished most to win as a child. He stood at 4 over par amid the mercilessness of Winged Foot. He would need par to win, bogey to make a Monday playoff. He had hit two fairways all day. He would hit no more.
He would hit it so humanly and famously off that tent way wayward, then stand at a decent lie in the dirt and hit a tree he tried to go around, then plunk a third shot into a hard lie in a green-side bunker, then pitch across and off the green, then pitch back, then make the putt for double bogey.
Between the second shot and the third on the way to the six, Johnny Miller said deathlessly on NBC, “This is a nightmare right here. Absolutely the — you couldn’t have worse decisions than he’s had, I think, on this hole. I don’t care who you are. I know you all love Phil. But come on, you’ve just got to make a par on this hole, you can hit a 2-iron, 3-iron, off the tee, another long iron onto the green, two-putt and say, ‘See you later.’ You don’t have to run down the last stretch on a white stallion, you know. You can limp in there and say, ‘Thanks for the trophy.’ ”
Mickelson then dipped into his personal reservoir of grace and said, also deathlessly, “Well, I am still in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot.”
And then 14 years on, at age 50, he walked down No. 18 talking with Paul Casey. He reached his ball about 10 yards into the left rough, where a volunteer had placed a red flag to help with the locating. Mickelson lifted it and tossed it to the man and said politely, “Thanks for your help.”
Then he whacked a shot over into the right rough near the green. Then he bogeyed for a 79. Then he eschewed interviews, the prerogative of one not in contention or on the list of champions.
Hours and hours earlier, he had begun his first major trip back to his nightmare at No. 1, near the impossibly sturdy clubhouse just off to the left with its Manhattan schist and Fordham gneiss rock and its Vermont slate roof, designed by Clifford Charles Wendehack (1885-1948) and raised up in the 1920s. A sculpted lion named Leo sits out front.
He had turned up in black and in sunglasses that made him look badass at 50. About 44 witnesses watched, give or take an arriving or departing straggler. Volunteers in volunteer shirts held up camera phones. Then the starter introduced a six-time runner-up, Mickelson, but didn’t mention that even if, by custom, he would have mentioned any past U.S. Open championship and its bygone year. “This is the 1:27 starting time,” he said. “From Rancho Santa Fe, California, Phil Mickelson.”
The spare language sort of ached.
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