News & Opinion

Mickelson’s legend hinges on near-misses

We all know what the big story will be at next week’s PGA Championship. Can a revitalized Tiger Woods win his 16th major championship?

Steel yourselves for be full-blown TigerMania at Bethpage Park’s Black Course.

Here’s an alternative-history question for you, though: Why isn’t Phil Mickelson going for his 16th major championship at next week’s PGA Championship? He easily could be.

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Phil Mickelson should be regarded as a threat to win the PGA Championship next week, despite a long and painful history in many of golf’s biggest events.

Well, we know why. Mickelson’s game is sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful. Consistency was never his middle name. (Actually, it’s Alfred.) He may be the most wildly inconsistent player in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

What’s amazing about Mickelson is that he won five major championships among his 44 PGA Tour victories. While that’s a great career for just about any player, he probably underachieved there, with a little help from the existence of Woods.

Trying to convince you that Mickelson is a threat to win this PGA probably is like trying to sell you New Jersey swampland or the George Washington Bridge. There are a few tenuous reasons to think Mickelson will to rise to the occasion just a month before his 49th birthday.

First, let’s see where Mickelson let 11 majors slip away, listed in order of painfulness:

2006 U.S. Open, Winged Foot. This is the one we can’t forget. Mickelson led by one going to the 72nd hole, despite hitting more trees than Tarzan in the final round. He needed a par to win, a bogey to force a playoff. You know the rest: A bad drive followed by an ill-advised heroic recovery shot through the trees led to a double bogey and his golfing epitaph, “I am such an idiot.” Geoff Ogilvy won while Mickelson replaced Jean Van de Velde as golf’s poster boy for last-hole blunders.

2004 U.S. Open, Shinnecock Hills. Mickelson was charging like a young Arnold Palmer in a final round when the greens got away from the USGA. He trailed Retief Goosen by three strokes with six to play, then birdied three of the next four holes to take a lead. A three-putt double bogey at the 17th hole led to a two-shot swing and Retief Goosen silencing the raucous New York fans, who had adopted Mickelson, by winning the Open.

2009 U.S. Open, Bethpage Black. Mickelson suddenly grabbed a share of the lead with Lucas Glover in the final round with an eagle at the par-5 13th hole, but he missed putts from 3 and 6 feet at the 15th and 17th holes, respectively, and Glover took the title.

2011 British Open, Royal St. George’s. This was an extraordinary comeback by Mickelson, who one-putted the first 10 greens in the final round. Darren Clarke looked unsteady in the lead, but Mickelson blew a 2-footer at the 11th hole, had his confidence irrevocably shaken and Clarke coasted home after Dustin Johnson bailed a 2-iron shot out of bounds.

2004 British Open, Royal Troon. Mickelson held a one-shot lead on the back nine Sunday until he bogeyed the 13th hole and was passed by eventual winner Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els. Mickelson rallied with a birdie at the 16th and needed another at 17, a par 3, but missed the green and missed the ensuing playoff by one.

1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst. We remember Payne Stewart’s dramatic winning par putt on the final hole, but the game-changer happened at the par-3 17th. Mickelson hit it to 8 feet and missed. Stewart hit it to 5 feet and made it. Had there been an 18-hole playoff the next day, would Mickelson have played or flown home to be with his wife, Amy, who was about to give birth to their first child? We’ll never know.

2001 PGA, Atlanta Athletic Club. The highlight shot figured to be Mickelson’s scintillating chip-in at 15 to tie David Toms for the lead. Instead, it was Mickelson three-putting for bogey from 50 feet on the next hole. Toms laid up and made par at 18 to win by one, but if they had been tied, would Toms still have laid up? Once again, we’ll never know.

2012 Masters, Augusta National. This featured the wrong kind of triple crown. Mickelson made a triple bogey at the 10th hole Thursday and a god-awful triple at the par-3 fourth hole Sunday when his tee shot caromed off a grandstand railing into a thicket of trees. He tried to play it, and that’s when it got ugly. He eventually tied for third, two shots out of a playoff between eventual winner Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen.

2009 Masters, Augusta National. A final-round pairing of Woods and Mickelson was a sizzling affair as both players got hot early. Mickelson shot 30 on the front nine to get near the lead. Then he dumped a mis-hit 9-iron shot into the water at No. 12. He rallied, however, but missed a 4-footer for eagle at 15, a 5-footer for birdie at 17 and bogeyed 18 to finish three strokes out of a playoff won by Angel Cabrera.

2014 PGA, Valhalla. Mickelson could feel good about his closing 66, or maybe not. At the 16th hole, a long par 4. He found the left rough off the tee but got his approach just short of the green. From there, golf’s best short-game wizard juiced a pitch shot that bounced hard, hit the cup and kept going, to 9 feet above the hole. He left the par putt short, in the jaws, and despite making birdie in the dark during the controversial finish, came up one short of Rory McIlroy.

2013 U.S. Open, Merion. One behind Justin Rose at the 121-yard 13th hole in the final round, Mickelson blew his tee shot over the green, leading to a bogey. Only one other player among the top seven finishers bogeyed the short hole all week. Mickelson bogeyed it twice. He messed up a wedge shot at 15 and made another bogey. “Those were the shots where I let it go,” Mickelson said.

The reality check is, Mickelson is not on a roll. He won at Pebble Beach in February, a celebratory victory in every way. Since then, his finishes have varied from mundane to discouraging: 37th; 39th; missed cut; missed cut; 40th; 18th (at the Masters); and missed cut (at the past week’s Wells Fargo Championship).

Two things make me believe he could have a Cinderella week at the PGA. One is his history at Bethpage Black. He finished second in a pair of U.S. Opens there. He knows how to play the course.

The second is Woods winning the Masters. Oh, their long-time rivalry has gotten friendly in their old age and they practically go out on dates now (yeah, sure). Don’t you think the sight of Woods donning the Green Jacket at Augusta threw two more logs on Mickelson’s competitive fire? These guys have lived a life of Anything you can do I can do better.

Woods got a leg up at last year’s Tour Championship. Mickelson got the apparent last word by winning their pay-per-view $10 million match. Then Woods overshadowed Mickelson once again at the Masters.

Winning this PGA would be extra sweet now because topping Woods’ finest moment might be Mickelson’s finest moment, too.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just saying, it’s not impossible.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle