ARDMORE, Pa.—Phil Mickelson didn't get a U.S. Open Championship for his 43rd birthday like he wanted. He probably should have asked for a new putter first.
Through his 18 holes on Sunday, Mickelson used his putter 37 times on the greens. Well, he used his actual putter 36 times, as he had to use his wedge to get the ball over a ridge on the 15th hole that, technically, still counts as a putt.
Thirty-seven putts. What a horrible birthday present that was.
There comes a time in a round of golf—four rounds, if you think about Phil's entire second-place finish at Merion—where the lip-outs and burned edges on putt after putt go from making a player feel great with his putter to wanting to throw it in the quarry.
"I didn't feel the stroke was off," Mickelson told the assembled media after his four-over 74 on Sunday. "The stroke felt fabulous all day, starting at the first hole. I can't believe that ball didn't go in."
Then, Phil's comments became comical, or depressing, depending on how you look at it, when he talked about all his missed chances with the blade.
"The second hole I hit a good putt. It was really rough around that hole there. I hit a good putt for eagle on four. Hit a good putt on six. I thought I made that.
"I thought I made the one on eight. Thought I made the one on nine, man. The one on 11 wasn't great, but I thought I had a chance on 12. Certainly 16, I thought I made.
"There were a number that could have gone in. And I think only one did, the one on 14 for par."
That, if you are counting, is nine putts that Mickelson thought he made when he struck the ball. And that was just on Sunday. He had a number of lip-outs in his first two rounds and had at least four burned edges in Round 3 as well.
Conservatively speaking, Mickelson missed at least 16 putts this week that one might say—certainly Phil might say—he should have made. If just one of those putts had gone in, Mickelson would be in a playoff on Monday. Had two gone in, he would be the U.S. Open champion.
Mickelson now has six second-place finishes in his 23 U.S. Opens. When asked if this was his toughest runner-up finish to swallow, he was very candid, saying that he thought it was his best chance, which makes it that much more disappointing.
"This one's probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak."
It just didn't feel like a typical Mickelson round early on Sunday. He carded two double bogeys in his first five holes, but was still completely in contention.
It didn't feel like the wheels were falling off at any time, either. He was composed, answering one double bogey with a near eagle for a tap-in birdie to stay at, or near, the top of the leaderboard.
When Mickelson holed out his second shot on the 10th hole for eagle, there was a palpable buzz around the green. Phil had gotten through his rough patch and was somehow back leading the tournament.
It was as if everything that came before was suddenly erased. Once again, it felt like Phil's tournament to win.
There were certainly a few shots that got away from Mickelson on the back nine, most notably the tee shot on the short par-three 13th, which was right on line with the pin but flown way over. Usually adept around the greens, he was only able to get his second shot to around 25 feet and narrowly missed the par putt, settling for bogey.
That could have been his undoing, but the impossible stretch of holes between 14 and 18 allowed him to stay right with playing partner Hunter Mahan and eventual winner Justin Rose.
It's hard to decide if Phil lost the U.S. Open or Rose just went out and won it. The course was incredibly difficult all week, so Rose certainly deserves credit for the way he held on down the stretch, minimizing his mistakes enough with the difficult conditions and immense pressure of the situation.
Rose won at one of the toughest courses in U.S. Open history, with no player at or below par. Still, Phil should really have been under par.
He played well enough to win, but his putting, while almost perfect, wasn't good enough when he needed it to be.
A bad bogey on the 15th put extra pressure on the last three holes, and despite a wayward tee shot on the 16th hole, he stuck his second shot over the quarry to eight feet and a chance for birdie to tie Rose, who was in the 18th fairway at the time.
I was convinced, standing greenside on the 16th hole, that Mickelson was going to drain that birdie putt and go on to win the U.S. Open.
And then he missed it. I still don't know how he missed it. Neither does he or anybody on that green.
When his tee shot on the 17th left him with little chance for birdie, Phil settled for par and a faint chance of magic—Ben Hogan-like magic—to birdie the 18th hole to force a playoff.
His drive went left into the rough, and despite a wicked slice to try to cut the ball around the low-hanging trees, Mickelson left his approach short, needing another hole-out to force a playoff.
We know how that ended. Needing one last birthday gift, Mickelson wasn't able to hole the shot. The lights went out on another U.S. Open chance for Lefty. Sadly for him, the lights weren't birthday candles.
Maybe his wish will come true next year.
"If I had won today or if I ultimately win, I'll look back at the other Opens and think that [six second-place finishes] was a positive play. If I never get The Open, then I look back and I think that—every time I think of the U.S. Open, I just think of heartbreak."
Next year, Mickelson will get another chance to win at Pinehurst of all places, where his first runner-up finish happened at the hands, and putter, of Payne Stewart 15 years ago.
As much as Mickelson loved the course at Merion—he really loved the course this week and thought it gave him his best chance to win—maybe next year will be his time. If he still has one birthday wish left, maybe he can wish for that.
After the new putter, for sure.
All quotes obtained firsthand.
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