Past Heartaches Make Mickelson Hungrier

Phil Mickelson has a record six career runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, but looks at the opportunity to come out on top at Chambers Bay as an exciting challenge. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)
Phil Mickelson has a record six career runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, but looks at the opportunity to come out on top at Chambers Bay as an exciting challenge. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Amateur great Bob Jones once said that he derived a certain amount of satisfaction from finishing second in a golf championship, because although he was disappointed to not win, he knew how well he had played to come so agonizingly close. 

Whether Jones was espousing enlightened philosophy or Freudian sophistry, his remark remains relevant for one player in particular – and a few others to a lesser degree – as the 115th U.S. Open gets underway Thursday morning on the charmingly alarming confines of Chambers Bay.

When he notched his sixth runner-up finish in the national championship in 2013 at Merion Golf Club, tying the record for most silver medals in a major that Jack Nicklaus set in the British Open, Phil Mickelson could not be convinced that he achieved anything more than “heartbreak.”

Only one thing can change that, he said then. “ … If I ultimately win, I’ll look back at the other Opens and think that it was a positive play.”

Jones, of course, enjoyed the luxury of balancing four U.S. Open victories (among 13 major titles) against his four runner-up finishes. Sam Snead, who also finished second four times in the National Open but never won it, likely would align himself with Lefty when assessing the value of repeated agony.

Fortunately for Mickelson, he still has time to rectify matters, and Chambers Bay, a links-style layout that will require imagination and an impeccable short game, would appear to align with his skill set. Like Augusta National Golf Club, where he has won three Masters, Chambers Bay is a test that requires patience but not perfection.

“There's plenty of room to play and to recover from. And I feel like there’s a number of holes that you can capitalize and make birdies on and shoot a good number,” said the California native, whose USGA résumé does include a victory in the 1990 U.S. Amateur. “It has characteristics of playability similar to Augusta, characteristics of St. Andrews that allow you to play it less than perfect.”

Mickelson, who turned 45 on Tuesday, has barely scratched proficiency since winning the 2013 British Open at Muirfield in a remarkable performance following his crushing two-stroke defeat at Merion – the toughest, he said, of all his setbacks going back to the first runner-up in 1999 to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No. 2. He hasn’t won since Muirfield, but he remains capable of raising his game for the majors, having finished second in the last two, the PGA Championship and the Masters.

Mickelson appears to have arrived on the shores of Puget Sound on an upswing after finishing joint third with a final-round 65 Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. “I feel like I have the proper direction of my game,” he said, exhibiting confidence when talking about his rising form. “But you just never know. It’s been a little while since I’ve played my best golf.”

“This is a great opportunity for him. But I don’t look at it as his career, by any means, coming to an end anytime soon,” said Rickie Fowler, who in last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst tied for second with Erik Compton behind runaway champ Martin Kaymer. “He’s still got plenty of power. He’s still got all the shots in the bag. You come up with a short-game shot and you’re not really going to ask anyone else other than him to hit it if there was a ‘must-make’ up-and-down.

“I feel like Phil is one of those guys that has … one of the best mental games as far as putting things behind him, always moving forward, grinding it out, getting the most out of a round. And that’s going to be something that’s key here this week.”

Mickelson isn’t the only player in this week’s field seeking redemption; he just bears the most scar tissue.

Jason Day of Australia has finished second in two of his four U.S. Open starts and placed T-4 last year at Pinehurst. U.S. Senior Open champion Colin Montgomerie owns three U.S. Open silver medals, including the one he shared with Mickelson in 2006 at Winged Foot when both men chopped up the 72nd hole to pave the way for Geoff Ogilvy’s win. Sergio Garcia finished in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002, including fourth in the U.S. Open. He tied for third in 2005, and owns 18 top-10 finishes in majors, but has no wins. Lee Westwood has twice finished third in the U.S. Open, contributions to a dubious record of eight top-3 finishes in majors without a win.

Mickelson long ago broke his major jinx at the 2004 Masters and owns five majors among 42 PGA Tour titles. But he has been perplexed by his Sisyphean odysseys in the U.S. Open and his futility in completing the career Grand Slam, and each trip up the mountain has taken a toll. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful, even though only one man, Hale Irwin in 1991, has won the U.S. Open after turning 45, and no lefty has ever been adorned with the Jack Nicklaus Gold Medal.

Truthfully, though, he is more than hopeful. No matter the slings and arrows that have pierced his heart, he is undaunted.

“I’ve always been somebody, ever since I was a kid, that got motivated by failure, that worked harder because of failure,” Mickelson said. “Some people get discouraged by that, and it almost pushes them away. The fact that I’ve come so close is actually a motivator for me to work harder. And it’s encouraging that I’ve done well in this tournament. It’s encouraging that I’ve had success and that I’ve played some of my best golf in this event and that I’ve had a number of opportunities.

“I know that I love what I do,” Mickelson added. “And I still have a huge obstacle, a huge challenge that I am trying to overcome, and that’s to win a U.S. Open and complete the Grand Slam. And I’m enjoying that challenge. I’m having fun with it. It’s not a burden. It’s like an exciting opportunity.”

Nicklaus, who like his idol Jones accumulated four firsts and four seconds in the U.S. Open – and 18 wins and 19 seconds overall in the four major championships – recently told another reporter this: “To get beat is very healthy, particularly when you’ve given it your best effort.”

Just by coincidence, Phil Mickelson mentioned that he’s never felt fitter.    

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work previously has appeared on USGA websites.