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Phil Mickelson and Winged Foot: It’s hardly an Open wound

Winner Geoff Ogilvy and runner-up Phil Mickelson at 2006 U.S. Open
Phil Mickelson (right) can’t bear to see where Geoff Ogilvy’s name will reside on the trophy after the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Despite his epic collapse on the 72nd hole in the 2006 U.S. Open, Mickelson continues a remarkable career that lacks for nothing … except a U.S. Open trophy

He strode to Winged Foot’ s 18th tee on the evening of June 18, 2006, with a one-stroke lead and destiny at his doorstep, 460 yards from a U.S. Open championship and every reason to believe he was the finest golfer in the world. After failing to claim a major title in his first 46 attempts – a span of almost 14 years – Phil Mickelson arrived in the New York City suburb of Mamaroneck having won three of the previous nine.

The stretch had just been punctuated by back-to-back victories at the 2005 PGA Championship and ’06 Masters, turning a career-long underachiever into money in the bank. Few Tour pros in any era have redefined themselves more swiftly or thoroughly than did Philly Mick in the mid-2000s. With the U.S. Open returning to Winged Foot this week, there never will be a better time to reassess those 20 minutes of hell that he brought upon himself in the closing stages of that gathering 14 years ago.

Did Mickelson’s 72nd-hole double bogey/mind-blowing collapse forever tarnish his legacy? Not even a smudge.

Does the loss to Geoff Ogilvy serve as the unsightly centerpiece to an event at which Mickelson has finished second on six occasions? Of course. This was the Big One That Got Away, and there are plenty of fish to choose from.

Jean Van de Velde never recovered from a similar meltdown at the 1999 British Open, which suggests he was in over his head to begin with. Since blasting his drive off the roof of a hospitality tent 30 yards left of Winged Foot’s 18thfairway, at which point the mess had only just begun, Mickelson has added two major titles and 13 other PGA Tour victories to his portfolio, giving him five majors and 44 overall.

Of particular note in that post-debacle total is the 2013 British, which featured a furious finishing kick from five strokes back to beat Henrik Stenson by three. More than merely serving as Mickelson’s crowning achievement, the stunning rally at Muirfield seemed to fully eradicate the anguish of ’06. The man had done something nobody, including Mickelson himself, ever thought he’d do: hoist a Claret Jug.

All the fuss over Mickelson’s inability to win a U.S. Open certainly is understandable. It’s an easy pre-tournament storyline for the media; never mind that he recently turned 50 and can count just two Tour triumphs since the Miracle at Muirfield. Lefty’s fan club can cling to a smidgeon of hope based on the wire-to-wire thumping he laid on the seniors last month in his Champions Tour debut, but this week, he’s more of a ceremonial contestant than a legitimate contender.

It’s fair to figure the USGA might have given Mickelson one of those special lifetime exemptions to assure his presence at Winged Foot, which would have been a bit like dragging Jackie Onassis back to the grassy knoll. Instead, the bluecoats altered the automatic-qualifying process to include the top 70 in the Official World Golf Ranking instead of the usual top 60, courtesy of the coronavirus and the temporary ban on local/sectional qualifiers.

Lo and behold, Mickelson was 63rd at the March 15 deadline. He since has held the 36-hole lead in Hartford and very quietly grabbed a share of second place in Memphis, so maybe, just maybe….

Nah, it can’t happen. The golf gods just don’t have that wicked of a sense of humor. What I never could understand is how Mickelson never gave himself a chance at the British Open, where the emphasis on creativity around the greens is never greater, yet repeatedly challenged at the U.S. Open, where his propensity for driving the ball crooked resulted in the severest of penalties.

Phil Mickelson on 72nd hole at 2006 U.S. Open
Phil Mickelson feels the weight of his 72nd-hole collapse at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Which takes us back 14 years to that Sunday at Winged Foot. Mickelson struggled mightily with his driver throughout the final round, opening with a swing that sent his ball sailing hard-right into the gallery. The mass of humanity led to a kind carom, however, and Lefty was able to save par from a decent lie instead of menacing rough.

His longtime caddie, Jim Mackay, would later tell me that club selection at the 18th never was discussed, an interesting side note to a day in which Mickelson was credited with hitting just two fairways, neither on the final nine. Mackay, whose superb golf mind and loyalty to Lefty go a long way toward explaining how he remained on the bag for 25 years, also would mention that it was utterly inconceivable how his boss could remain in the hunt that afternoon, playing such a brutal golf course (Ogilvy won at 5 over) from the positions in which his errant driving left him.

You don’t win five major titles without an abundance of confidence, but then, you don’t win one from the hospitality area. Mickelson actually drew another playable lie off the ricochet at the 18th, then struck his second shot too high and caught a branch, advancing his ball no more than 35 yards. His third soared over the tree line but found a buried lie in the left greenside bunker. From there, he failed to get up and down to force a playoff.

“Oh, no!” Mickelson had yelped as his final drive sliced toward the corporate schmoozers who never thought they’d end the day on national television.

“I am such an idiot,” he would rue after surrendering the 106th U.S. Open to the costliest of lapses in judgment.

Darkness was falling as I hustled out of the media center to examine the scene of the crime. I checked out the spots from where Mickelson had hit his second and third shots, trying my best to figure out what a man with so much talent and intelligence had been thinking. On the return journey up the left side of the 18th, I was stopped dead in my tracks by nothing more than a pair of very large footprints in the sand.

Size 13, I guessed. No other number made sense.

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