U.S. Open 2016: Can Phil Mickelson conquer nemesis?
It’s become his nemesis over the years, his final unclimbed peak in golf, and perhaps the one trophy he covets too much.
Phil Mickelson will resume his U.S. Open quest at Oakmont next month with disappointment and destiny weighing on his shoulders.
The popular left-hander has finished second a record six times as he chases the fourth and final leg of the hallowed career grand slam.
Only five players, all bona fide legends of the game, have won all four of golf’s major titles since the Masters began in 1934 — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Despite three Masters, a British Open and a U.S. PGA, Mickelson has always failed just below the summit of the U.S. Open, and his quest has almost turned into a national golfing obsession.
But the man who handed Mickelson one of his most galling defeats in 2006 believes the veteran, who turns 46 on the first day of this year’s tournament, is still a serious threat — “if his head gets in the right place.”
“America would party for a week if Phil won, he’d be everybody’s favourite,” Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy told CNN’s Living Golf. “What a way to walk off into the sunset.”
The mercurial Mickelson might argue otherwise, but 2006 is considered by most observers as his biggest U.S. Open disaster.
“The way the week had been unfolding in New York Phil had kind of this crescendo… coming to him winning the U.S. Open and doing it in New York and at Winged Foot which is kind of a historic place,” added Ogilvy.
In a tumultuous final few holes, with an amped-up crowd roaring on “their man,” a handful of players saw chances come and go.
Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie squandered his best opportunity of a major title with a double bogey on the last hole, while Jim Furyk carved his final drive left en route to a bogey to also finish a shot adrift.
In the penultimate group, Ogilvy hit his “drive of the year” on the 18th, and holed a downhill six footer for par to set the clubhouse lead at five over par.
“Over the putt I was like, ‘well this is a very good chance that this is for a playoff,” he said. “And I have to be completely honest, some of the things that went through my head were, ‘What am I going to do with my hotel? What happens with 18-hole playoffs?’
“So I had some weird things going in my head but somehow managed to hit a great putt. And then the next 10 minutes were kind of crazy.”
Behind him, Mickelson had stood on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead. A par four on the last would have been enough to win his third major in a row after victory in April’s Masters and the U.S. PGA the previous summer.
But amid a feverish throng, Mickelson blew it spectacularly — first with a drive that sliced way left into a hospitality unit before settling in rough behind trees.
In traditional swashbuckling fashion, he tried to go for the green from the rough but could only hack out 25 yards. His third shot found the greenside bunker, and his fourth splashed over the green before he chipped on and holed a putt for a six to lose by one.
To rub salt into the wound, Mickelson had to return to the 18th green for the presentation ceremony.
“It was really bittersweet with Phil on the last green because … he was at a pretty low point for the next 20 minutes after the 18th hole and kind of head spinning,” added Ogilvy, who defended his title at Oakmont, Pennsylvania, the following year.
“I’m friends with Phil so that was a kind of an odd moment to try to not be too gleeful in front of him and his situation but I was pretty excited. And then the next few hours were just a complete blur.”
Countryman Adam Scott even got off Ernie Els’s departing private jet and hared back to Winged Foot to join in the celebrations.
For Mickelson, it was a fourth runner-up spot in a tournament he so desperately wanted to win.
His first big U.S. Open disappointment came at Pinehurst, North Carolina, in 1999, when he was pipped by Payne Stewart, who died four months later in a plane crash. In 2002 he had to settle for second behind Tiger Woods at Bethpage Black on Long Island.
In 2004, with a first major finally under his belt with victory at that year’s Masters, he lost out to Retief Goosen in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, also in front of an adoring New York crowd.
And back at Bethpage in 2009 — and with the narrative given extra poignancy after wife Amy had been diagnosed with breast cancer — Mickelson finished second behind journeyman Lucas Glover.
‘Motivated by failure’
But Mickelson insists the hardest pill to swallow was losing out to England’s Justin Rose at Merion in 2013.
“I do. That hasn’t changed,” he said ahead of last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. “It was a tournament I feel I should have won, that I was playing well enough to win. And a couple of mistakes late in the tournament ended up costing me.
“Not to take anything away from Justin — he played a phenomenal final round — but I felt like I didn’t have to play exceptional to shoot a lower score than that and I just didn’t do it.”
With such a medley of misses behind him, each successive U.S. Open piles extra pressure on Mickelson.
Only two players have won a modern major over the age of 46 — Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 U.S. PGA and Nicklaus was 46 when he clinched the last of his 18 major titles at the 1986 Masters.
Mickelson, however, is still motivated by the challenge.
“I’ve always been somebody, ever since I was a kid, who got motivated by failure,” the current world No. 18 told reporters last year.
“Some people get discouraged by that, and it almost pushes them away. But for me it’s been a motivator to continue to work harder and get over that hump.”
He added: “I’m enjoying that challenge. I’m having fun with it. It’s not a burden. It’s like an exciting opportunity. And every year it comes around, I get excited to try to conquer that opportunity and complete that grand slam. I love it.”
Ogilvy is in no doubt that the American could usurp the younger crowd such as Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy at the historic Oakmont.
“He’s clearly capable, if he gets a sniff on the weekend he’ll be really hard to beat because when he gets that bit between his teeth, when his head gets in the right place, he’s as good as a competitor we’ve ever seen on a golf course,” said Ogilvy.
“If he can get to the weekend with a chance I think he has as good a chance as anybody.”