Something amazing happened at Merion yesterday. Phil Mickelson's U.S. Open history was summed up in a single rejection:
So when Rose was put back in the room, someone left the door open. Up the pathway trudged a beaten Mickelson. He walked up to the patio, asked someone where he needed to go and was directed to go straight. Mickelson walked to the open door, expecting to be allowed in.
A man in a red shirt shut it in his face.
"Sorry," a USGA official said. "That's where the champion is."
"Sorry, that's where the champion is." Life can be so literal sometimes.
It was Phil's birthday, because of course it was. Yet another second-place finish at the Open, his sixth dating back to 1999. It's hard to call this one a choke, even though Mickelson was leading coming into Sunday, and as it turned out, all he needed to do was stay even on the day. Hell, he could have matched his tournament-worst +2 from Friday and it would have been good enough for a playoff.
It didn't feel like a choke because the choke came so early, with a double-bogeys on three and five. For the majority of his round, a couple hours' worth, it felt like an attempted comeback, always on the verge but never quite getting going. The miracle eagle on 10. A birdie putt on 12 that Mickelson was convinced was going in until it didn't. On 13 he skyed it over the green for bogey—he would say later he pulled the wrong wedge. On 14, a long putt to save par. On 15, another errant wedge. On 16, another would-be birdie putt that just wouldn't move right. Somehow, Mickelson's final round managed to be as whiplash-inducing as a roller coaster while still being as inexorable as a log flume.
There's always been something weird and arbitrary about rooting for individual athletes in individual sports, but at times cheering for Phil Mickelson seems especially pointless. It's like rooting for Cnut to turn back the waves. Or, more fitting with the slapstick natures of each U.S. Open near-run, it's like rooting for the coyote to finally catch the road runner. Sure, it'd be satisfying, but you can't really expect it to happen.
Of course, this is what was said about The Masters, where Mickelson finished third four times before finally breaking through. Last night, addressing the microphones in the media tent—after the champion was done, of course—Mickelson considered what his run of second-place finishes would mean if he does finally break through. This being Phil, who might as well be followed by his own personal storm cloud wherever he goes, he was also forced to consider what they would mean if second is the closest he ever gets:
“If I had won today or if I ultimately win, I’ll look back at the other Opens and think that it 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's U.S. Open will take place at Pinehurst's No. 2, where Phil tallied his first-ever second-place finish at the Open in 1999. He's been there already; he's done this before. Sometimes it seems as if Mickelson is just golfing through a history that's already been written, one just waiting to be played, the winner's hand just waiting to be shaken.