Putter fails Mickelson, who finds only more Open heartbreak

Putter fails Mickelson, who finds only more Open heartbreak

June 16, 2013, 10:30 pm
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ARDMORE, Pa. -- When Phil Mickelson won the 2004 Masters, just as his birdie putt at the 72nd hole was on its way, Jim Nantz famously asked if it was Mickelson's time.

Nine years later, Mickelson has won four major championships, but it's looking like it will never be his time to win the U.S. Open.

Mickelson on Sunday finished in second place at the Open for a record sixth time. That record is his and his alone.

He entered Sunday's final round as the 54-hole leader but carded a 74 to end up in a tie with Jason Day at 3-over par for the championship. They finished two shots behind first-time major winner Justin Rose, who became the first Englishman to win the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 and won in Philadelphia for the second time in four years (see story).

"For me it's very heartbreaking," Mickelson said. "This could have been the big -- a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I'd like to win, after having so many good opportunities.

"Also playing very well here [at Merion] and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity."

Mickelson said Saturday night that the final round had "the makings to be something special." Sunday was not only Father's Day but also Mickelson's 43rd birthday. The clear fan favorite, he was serenaded from the driving range all the way to the 18th green with "Happy Birthday."

But rather than having the makings of something special, right from the start, right from the first green, Sunday had all the makings of an all-too-familiar Phil Mickelson final round at the U.S. Open. You could just see it wasn't going to go his way.

His 30-footer for birdie at the first lipped out. His 15-footer for birdie on the second did the same. And that's when the front nine quickly got away from him. After playing the first 56 holes of the championship without a double bogey, Mickelson made two in three holes, thanks to two three-putts at three and five.

"I should have made bogeys on those holes and I let them become doubles," he said. "I just would have been happy with bogeys on three and five, but those were costly doubles."

Although those would prove to be his only two three-putts the rest of the way, it was still Mickelson's putter that ultimately fell him Sunday.

Through his first nine, Mickelson recorded a whopping 20 putts and missed five for birdie and one for eagle, lipping out three of them. He missed three more on the back nine and finished with 35 total putts for the round. On eight occasions Mickelson had a look at birdie, and on eight occasions he missed. Who even gets a look at eight birdies in the final round of a U.S. Open, let alone misses them?

Only Mickelson.

"The stroke felt fabulous all day," he said, before a painful recounting of each and every miss.

The description would almost have been funny, if he wasn't so close -- again -- if it wasn't so sad -- again.

"Starting at the first hole ... I can't believe that putt didn't go in. Second hole, I hit a good putt. It was really rough around the hole there. I hit a good putt for eagle on four. Hit a good putt on six. I thought I made that. I thought I made the one on eight.

"Thought I made the one nine ... man.

"The one on 11 wasn't great, but I thought I had a chance on 12. Certainly 16, I thought I made.

"There were a number that could have gone in. And I think only one did, the one on 14 for par."

Despite all of it, Mickelson retook the lead, briefly, on the 10th hole, when he holed out from the right rough for an eagle from 75 yards. That's probably the best stat from Mickelson's round: He had a no-putt long before he could ever manage a one-putt.

"It put me right up on the lead and right at even par where I thought would be the winning score," he said. "I would have been happy to take birdie there. But to see that ball go in, I really thought that I was in a good position."

And he was, until he gave it all away again. The man with the best short game in the world made two highly uncharacteristic errors on the back nine that cost him the championship.

Trailing Rose by one on the 13th tee, Mickelson managed to bogey the easiest hole on the golf course. He airmailed the green at the 121-yard par-3 when he inexplicably, given his length, pulled a pitching wedge. He sailed it over the green, probably got lucky it didn't find the hazard, and gauged the ball out of the rough before two-putting for bogey.

Two holes later, after a crucial par save at the 14th, Mickelson mishit another wedge, spinning his ball down a false front and off the green. It was going to be a tricky up-and-down, but no one foresaw Mickelson blading his chip 25-feet past the pin.

That simply doesn't happen to a player with his short-game. After the round, he declined to even address the chip in specific, which led to another bogey.

Mickelson had one more chance to tie Rose on the final hole, but his pitch shot harmlessly rolled past the hole and through the green. It was over.

"Thirteen and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I'll look back on where I let it go," he said. "Those wedge shots on 13 and 15 are the two I'll look back on."

And there will be a lot of looking back now. Back to Pinehurst, to Bethpage, to Shinnecock, to Winged Foot, to Bethpage again, and now to Merion. To the six times he's finished runner-up in the U.S. Open.

He was asked if this one hurt any more or less than the others.

"Very possibly, yeah. I would say it very well could be. I think this was my best chance," he answered. "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."

Multiple times this week, Mickelson has pointed out that he's had great success at the U.S. Open, which he has. He has the most second-place finishes in history. But that's no way to measure success for anyone who comes that close, and especially a player -- an all-time great player -- like Mickelson.

Had he found a way to pull it out Sunday -- had one of his eight missed birdie putts gone down, had his short game just been average, had Justin Rose slipped up -- Mickelson would likely have his own plaque at Merion, alongside Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, marking the spot where he made eagle on the 10th hole en route to a U.S. Open.

Plaque or no plaque, Mickelson will inarguably go down as one of the biggest names in Open history, but it remains, after yet another close call, for the wrong reasons.

"If I had won today or if I ultimately win, I'll look back at the other Opens and think that it was a positive play," he admitted.

"If I never get The Open, then I look back and I think that -- every time I think of the U.S. Open, I just think of heartbreak."

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