Phil Mickelson may have come to terms with the fact he will never win a US Open long ago. The final confirmation delivered to the rest of us was just more striking than we were entitled to expect. He cut a shell-shocked figure when heading towards the Winged Foot scoring tent on Thursday, where the 79 at the foot of the card marked the left-hander’s highest 18-hole tally in his national open.
Players of lesser talent would have signed for considerably higher. This performance of army golf – left, right, left, right – was among the most extraordinary of Mickelson’s career. He had been on the practice range four hours before his first-round tee time, perhaps aware of the prospect for subsequent turmoil. In round two he recovered to shoot 74 but the die had been cast. Thirteen over in the major has proved unlucky for one.
This may be the end of the road for Mickelson in the US Open, a tournament he first teed up at in 1990. It is difficult to foresee a scenario where he qualifies for 2021. The United States Golf Association will surely make a case to grant Mickelson a special exemption for Torrey Pines and the 121st staging but the man himself has previously been adamant he would accept no such charity.
The other entry future route for Mickelson, who turned 50 in June, would be via senior competitions, by which point he surely could not be considered a US Open contender.
It was especially poetic that trauma arrived at Winged Foot. Common consensus is that the New York venue staged Mickelson’s finest opportunity at the one major that eludes him. The claim is overplayed – Colin Montgomerie blew the same tournament, in 2006, from an easier position – but this tie for second, one of six bridesmaid appearances for Mickelson, stung.
It is a cruel but recurring aspect of elite sport that losses linger more than victories. In theory, the US Open should have been the easiest major for Mickelson to knock off. Golf, however, works in mysterious ways; just ask Ernie Els or Davis Love, once tipped year after year for Masters success that never arrived.
Mickelson deserves his status as one of the greatest. Three Green Jackets, a Claret Jug and a Wanamaker Trophy represent a majors haul of which even excellent players can only dream.
Mickelson is also due immense credit for remaining competitive for so long. He won a World Golf Championship in 2018. Mickelson’s risk-and-reward style of play, his magnificent short game and propensity for creative shot-making have always rendered him compelling viewing. There are examples of Mickelson kindness. Upon learning a journalist of his reasonable but not exactly close acquaintance was confined to hospital, Mickelson – completely unsolicited – was a constant source of support over the course of three months.
Yet the quirky, complicated aspects of Mickelson are also unavoidable. He revels in attention. His association with the shamed Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters raised eyebrows. So, too, his willingness to engage with Saudi Arabia, as the country with a shameful human rights record looks to gain footholds in golf. Mickelson’s lame explanation for playing there this year related to encountering a new environment. When I suggested he could do this of his own volition, rather than when paid seven figures for the privilege, Mickelson branded the recommendation “stupid”.
A public lambasting of Tom Watson’s captaincy in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Ryder Cup was epic Mickelson theatre. So, too, his whacking of a moving ball at the US Open of 2018. On both occasions, Mickelson didn’t have the courage of his convictions when asked about the point he was making. It was our interpretation, not his statement.
For years, Mickelson – clean cut, perma-smiling, signing autographs until darkness – benefited in the eyes of the American public by simply not being Tiger Woods. That there was hostility between the pair added to the sense of Mickelson as the good guy as Woods’s personal life unravelled.
Mickelson didn’t joust with Woods over the closing stages of tournaments anything like as often as perception suggests, but galleries seemed content to depict a rivalry. The relationship softened in recent times, with Mickelson on umpteen occasions publicly heralding Woods for triggering a commercial boom in golf. Woods, who enjoyed an astonishing career renaissance that climaxed with Masters glory, is far more amenable to fellow players than was ever the case in his pomp.
Woods, like Mickelson, lasted 36 holes at Winged Foot. The former, now 44, will play with house money for the remainder of his career after that Augusta National triumph last April. “I don’t know,” said Mickelson when asked whether we had witnessed his last US Open round. If not, there must at least be widespread acknowledgement this is the one destined to get away.