The saga of Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot is like someone going face-to-face with the Ghost of U.S. Opens Past. When he returns to the course where he had a good chance to win a U.S. Open in 2006, he will no doubt be tortured by the victory that might have been.
It was a warm week in 2006 in Mamaroneck, N.Y., when the final round of the U.S. Open was played. Sunday’s temperature reached 95, according to the PGA Tour media guide. Phil Mickelson was having an excellent week in what had already been an extraordinary year.
He had won the previous year’s PGA Championship and the most recent Masters. At the U.S. Open, after the first round, he was one shot back of Colin Montgomerie who led with a 1-under par. In the second round, Mickelson dropped back a few shots after posting a 73.
By the end of the third round, Phil Mickelson was once again at the top of the leaderboard, tied with Kenneth Ferrie, an English golfer who won the British Boys title ten years earlier.
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In the final round, Mickelson’s ball seemed to have an allergy to fairways, but he was still in the lead as he came to the finishing holes. He was two strokes up with two holes to play. The magic just did not last.
Colin Montgomerie, who had led round one, made a charge during the final round. By the time he reached the 18th tee, he was tied with Mickelson at 4-over par.
But Monty’s success would not continue either. His second shot at 18 did not reach the green, finding instead the long grass in front of the putting surface. Thick, unforgiving U.S. Open rough. He was able to get out but was then 30 feet from the flag.
Amazingly, it took Montgomerie three putts to find the hole. He posted a double-bogey six, and the result was that he lost his third close call in a U.S. Open. The first was the playoff with Ernie Els in 1994. The second loss was also to Els, this time in 1997 at Congressional.
After Montgomerie limped off the final hole, it was Mickelson’s turn to play the 18th. He needed a par to win and a bogey for a playoff the next day.
Phil Mickelson’s drive found the gallery-packed dirt to the left side of the fairway, about 200 yards out. There were trees in the way. His attempted slice failed to get beyond all the vegetation. The ball dropped into left rough closer to the hole. His lie had some dead grass under the ball.
Now Phil Mickelson would have to hole out for a par, which was unlikely, but a bogey was still possible and would guarantee a playoff spot with Geoff Ogilvy, who had already finished at 5-over par.
Mickelson’s third shot landed not on the green, but with a violent thud in the left greenside bunker. It was the worst imaginable result. A fried egg lie, which as all golfers know is practically an impossible extraction shot. It proved to be a disaster. His fourth shot scooted across the green and finally was stopped in the long rough just over it. Once again, the next shot would have to find the hole just to get into a playoff. It didn’t, and Geoff Ogilvy became the 2006 U.S. Open champ.
Both Mickelson and Ogilvy had rather dazed looks at that point, Ogilvy because he couldn’t believe his luck and Mickelson because he couldn’t believe what he had done.
“I still am in shock that I did that,” he said several minutes after signing his scorecard. “I am such an idiot. I just couldn’t hit a fairway all day.”
Nobody ever says that, but he was honest if nothing else. He had the championship in his hand and couldn’t get it done. Neither could Montgomerie or Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champ, who had also made a Sunday charge. The 18th hole got them all.
“I just can’t believe I couldn’t par the last hole. It really stings,” Mickelson added. “As a kid I dreamt of winning this tournament. I came out here and worked hard all four days, haven’t made a bogey all week.”
He said it hurt more than any others because he had let it go. He had even prepared for needing a par to win.
“I came out here a week or two ago in the evenings, just spending the evenings on the last four holes thinking that I would just need to make four pars ( on the finishing holes),” he said. “I made a good par on 15, bogeyed 16 and doubled 18.”
How did it happen?
Johnny Miller credited U.S. Open nerves. The drive at 18, Miller explained, was an overswing, and Phil Mickelson was late coming into the ball. For a left-hander that translates into a push to the left side. And that’s exactly where Mickelson’s drive ended up.
While he had hit 4-wood successfully earlier in the round, Mickelson was afraid using that club off the tee would not get him far enough down the hole on the 18th. In retrospect, if he had hit 4-wood, some iron shot toward the green, hit a third onto the green and two-putted, he would at the very least made a playoff. He would have had a chance. But that’s not what happened.
Now, in 2020, Phil Mickelson has the most outside of outside chances to win the U.S. Open as it once again returns to Winged Foot. The COVID problem has resulted in allowing him to play without qualifying for the tournament. So, is this a lucky break for Mickelson in a tournament that has brought him nothing but heartache? Will he be able to capitalize? Stranger things have happened. Just look at the LPGA’s Sophia Popov who won the Women’s British Open.
If Mickelson’s form is just half as good as his recent victory at the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National, he has a chance. At age 50, most golfers don’t even have that.
The old Ford campaign asked,” What will Phil do next?” When it comes to Mickelson and the U.S. Open, likely his last, we will just have to wait a couple more weeks to find out.