06/20/2013

After another disappointing second at the US Open, Phil Mickelson appears to have mastered the art of playing well enough to lose. Lefty missed putts. He lipped out others. When the narrow fairways of Merion demanded a quality tee shot, Phil landed in the rough.

But Mickelson also scrambled like only he can. He turned an abysmal start on Thursday into an opening round 67. When the narrative shifted to “Phil chokes away another US Open” on Sunday, he restored hope with a magical chip in 2 on number 10.

His last shot in the final round set up a perfect climax. Forget convention, Phil, if you are to win this tournament you will do it with a miraculous pitch on the 72nd hole. Of course, the ball rolled past the cup even as Lefty chased it down from the fairway much in the same way he’s still chasing that victory: with his club in the air and a look of pleading desperation on his face.

Phil is 43 years old. At this point it’s fair to ask if he will ever win the US Open. The answer is decidedly more complicated than the question. With six second place finishes on his resume, it’s almost unthinkable that Phil hasn’t won yet. Not only because, well, that’s a lot, but also because those seconds came at six distinctly different courses. You would think that one of them would play to Phil’s strengths- creative shot making, a pin-point short game, and enough gall to take on difficult conditions.

One could argue that Merion set up the best for Phil. The shortness of the course took driver out of his bag so he didn’t have to (no need to bring up Winged Foot here). Phil forwent the big stick in favor of two driving woods and a plethora of wedges. For the most part the smaller clubs allowed him to avoid the big numbers.

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And still he lost. The US Open doesn’t demand perfection but it does require sustained mistake free golf. Phil can focus for 65-70 holes but it’s the one or two mishaps that do him in. Can he win? Sure. Will he win? He doesn’t have much time.

Phil showed his experience at times this past weekend and he will surely use Merion as another building block. But his window of opportunity is closing. At most , he likely has 5 years of contention left given his age and some lingering health concerns. Although they have subsided of late, any inflammation in the coming years could derail his pursuit of the US Open.

As a result, I don’t think Phil will get his championship. He called the reoccurring losses “heartbreaking” on Sunday. Perhaps one day he’ll still be able to appreciate his legacy. Already a Hall of Fame member in St. Augustine, the man called “Lefty” is without a doubt the greatest left handed golfer of all time.

And as far as historic golfers to be linked with, one could do worse than Sam Snead who also came up empty in the US Open. The difference between Snead and Phil, however, is that the former’s transcendent swing will always come up first in conversation. The latter may always be remembered for the missing trophy in his otherwise impressive collection.

Dillon Friday