Bobby Jones was once quoted, “Nobody ever wins the National Open. Somebody else just loses it.” Well, for Phil Mickelson nothing could be more true. This past Sunday, Phil finished runner-up in the U.S. Open for the sixth time.
During the final round, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hoping this storybook ending would come true. But I’m also sure I wasn’t alone in feeling that no matter what happened, poor lefty wasn’t going to pull it out.
It’s all speculative, but after his latest shortcoming, it’s tough not to make a guess as to whether Phil will or will not ever wind up closing the deal. Let’s examine…
Why He Will
At this point in his career, majors are the only thing that matter for Phil. He doesn’t need money – FedEx cup points might as well be Monopoly money. His legacy is intact. He’s already in the Hall of Fame. He’s considered one of the greatest of all time, so there isn’t much more for Phil to accomplish during the regular season.
The only reason he’s even playing in “regular” tournaments is to get himself prepared for majors. That’s it. Having the ability to curtail his schedule to peak at the right moments gives him a huge leg up in being as prepared as possible when showing up at a major championship venue. There are only a couple other players in the world with that luxury.
He may be getting older, but Phil can still flat out bomb it. He’s got the length off the tee to get shorter clubs in hand for approach shots more than the majority of the field., and we all know how magical he is with a wedge in his hand. More wedges into greens gives him better looks at birdies, but it all starts with his ability to blow it way down the fairway.
7th Time’s a Charm
The law of averages has to fall into his favor at some point, right? If he keeps putting himself in position to win at the U.S. Open, it’s got to fall into place eventually. Ask any tour pro – all they want is a chance on Sunday. Just an opportunity to be in the hunt as the tournament comes to a close, and they know anything can happen. Phil keeps putting himself in position to win, it’s just a matter of time before he closes the deal.
The 2014 U.S. Open is at Pinehurst, site of the 1999 U.S. Open when Phil finished runner-up to Payne Stewart. Additionally, the U.S. Open will be held at Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Phil finished runner-up at these venues as well. He’s won in the past at Pebble Beach, site of the 2019 U.S. Open. He might know the courses coming up for the U.S. Open as well as anyone on tour, so course management and understanding subtle breaks will be to his advantage here; and in the majors, every advantage counts for something.
Why He Won’t
Six times. He’s come up just short six times. It’s like compulsive heartbreak, and it would eat at anyone. Phil may be a competitor and believe he can win, but whether he admits it or not, a small part of him has to believe there is some kind of curse on him.
Wild Tee Shots
The U.S. Open is known for placing a premium on accuracy. The defining characteristics of the USGA’s setup for the tournament is lush, thick rough and narrow fairways that flirt with danger. To play from the rough in the U.S. Open likely means you won’t be around for the weekend. Wild shots off the tee have long been viewed as the Achilles heel to Phil’s game, and this year with the championship on the line, he wasn’t able to find the short grass when he blocked his tee shot into the left rough.
Best Chance was Merion
This is self-admitted from Michelson. On a soft course with several short par 4’s primed for birdies, the best wedge player in the world couldn’t capitalize. In the final round, he missed numerous good looks at birdie as his putter went cold and on holes 13 and 15, he made bogey after having a wedge in hand. He won’t see another U.S. Open where he can hit that many wedges into soft, receptive greens, which is definitely the strength of his game.
No Cure for Age
Phil is 43 (it was actually his birthday during the final round on Sunday). He’s in the sunset of his career, and it’s harder than ever to win on tour with all the young talent coming up – tournaments are as competitive as they’ve ever been. Additionally, he’s got issues with arthritis that will likely take their toll one way or another.
What It’ll Take
For Phil to win a U.S. Open, it’s going to take a perfect storm. If it’s going to ever happen, I think it’ll have to be next year at Pinehurst. Phil lost out to Payne Stewart here in 1999 for his first runner-up. Instead of thinking about his shortcomings from that tournament, I think he’ll concentrate on the legacy and memory of Payne, who was a friend of his. I think that emotion will help him. He knows the venue, he’ll have that spiritual sense with him, and coming off this year’s Open and as runner-up at Pinehurst in the past, he’ll know he has the game to be in the hunt at least.
He’ll also have to avoid big numbers. We’ve seen Phil go for the miracle shot time and time again – he’s a gunslinger, and that’s why people love him. He’s pulled many off, and many have led to blow up holes. The U.S. Open values consistency and par.
He’ll have to drive the ball well. When Phil finds fairways, he can attack. Nobody can attack from the rough at the U.S. Open. When he hits the ball well off the tee, it puts him into a rhythm that’s tough to stop even if he keeps two-putting for par.
He can’t be in the final group. It might be purely mental, but knowing people are behind you gives more of the mentality of the chase and not the chaser. Phil is dangerous when he’s pushing the gas, and the U.S. Open is a tough tournament to try and catch someone in.
If all of these things occur, we could be singing a different song this time next year.