At the end of the day...loser or winner?

9:22 PM, Jun 16, 2013   |    comments
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It's a place he's become used to.

A place that, if his outward exterior is honest, he seems to accept and be as comfortable with as anyone could be.

For the sixth time in 23 U.S. Open Golf Championships, Phil Mickelson came in second.

Yet, in a larger sense, he comes away a winner.


Though Justin Rose wears the medal and embraces the trophy, the true winner of this year's Open was Merion Golf Club. Not one player finished in red numbers. Despite being a shorter layout for today's long bombers, balls were sprayed around and amongst the wicker basket pins, but few dropped into the cups before they were supposed to. And that's the way the USGA wants it, and what sets their courses apart from their PGA Tour counterparts: Tour courses are set up to showcase the talents of the players, while the USGA sets out to challenge, stymie, and some might say, embarrass the competitors.

Yet as the day dawned, the course was set up to finally give Lefty what he'd always wanted: a U.S. Open title. He was the leader after three rounds with the only score below par, it was Father's Day, and it was his 43rd birthday. Talk about stacking the deck.
Whether you like golf or not, whether your posterior can take being anchored to your favorite couch or comfy chair for six hours, or whether you appreciate drama played out among the wealthy in a tony setting, Sunday at the Open is usually a compelling opera.

As Mickelson walked to the first tee, he received a loud ovation - even before he was announced to the spectators. He was clearly the sentimental favorite, though on this day a lot of dads were playing and many had their own stories of note. It was Phil who had come so achingly close so many times before, and it was Phil who flew out of Philadelphia mid-week to go see his daughter graduate from eighth grade and then fly back overnight to get back to Merion in time to tee off on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the player Mickelson is most often compared to and rarely seems to come out on top of, Tiger Woods, was already deep into his final round. He was getting loud ovations, too, urging him on as he played out the string in what would be his worst showing at a U.S. Open as a professional.

For those saying, even imploring, that Tiger is back, not so fast. As it all too often happens in our business, reporters jump the gun on a story so that when it may pan out, they can puff out their chest and say, "I told you first." Pfffft.

Yes, Tiger has had a terrific year, with four Tour wins, and he's making a boatload of money; but in the category that Tiger himself would say is the only one that counts, winning majors, he's still oh-for-five - years. The Tiger Woods that will be "back" will be the Tiger Woods who is lapping the field while everyone else is failing to make par, not finishing at 13-over-par himself.

Tiger has his fourteen majors, he can still coax magic out of his clubs that makes your jaw drop, and now he seems to have his personal life back on track. You have to applaud that. Lefty's won far fewer majors, but he's in the Hall of Fame, he's handled his share of life's difficulties with grace, and he's seemingly had the off-course stuff figured out for quite a while now. It doesn't seem quite fair to break the Tiger and Phil comparison down as simply as 14-to-4, as in major titles.

As Mickelson was interviewed before his round, he talked of playing well and having fun being the key to his round, and then insightfully saying that the difference between a Sunday round compared to the three earlier rounds was that as the holes dwindled on Sunday, you begin to dwell on running out of chances instead of optimistically thinking that you have one, two, or three days still to go.

He started out like someone with the hiccups; par, double bogey, birdie, double bogey. Yet rather than those two buzzards signaling his demise, he was still very much in the hunt; no one else was making a move. And when you looked at the players atop the leaderboard, with Mickelson the only one who was carrying a major in his bag along with his clubs, you had to think that as long as Lefty was patient, he could outlast the others and win.

Oh, his bag. Merion was such a different course, a setup unlike any other, that Mickelson didn't carry a driver this week; he also carried five different wedges, an arsenal better suited to his artistry around the greens. Yet, as the round progressed into the middle set of holes, Merion's softer underbelly, Phil wasn't getting shots to drop.

Then came 10, and a Mickelson thunderbolt. One of those wedges produced an eagle and a leap from Phil, literally jumping off the ground and figuratively vaulting back into the lead at even-par. It was a feel-good moment that surely would propel Lefty to the finish line on top.

Then, just as spectacularly and genuinely, frustratingly Phil came another double bogey at 13, the shortest hole on the course. His tee shot air-mailed the green through a rain shower, and sent him from one-under to one-over par. It's the kind of disheartening break that has shown up in Lefty's career at the most inopportune times.

He has seen heartbreak at the Open from both sides: Payne Stewart's birdie on 18 in 1999 yanked Mickelson out of a likely 18-hole playoff, and then Mickelson playing Sunday's 18 at Winged Foot in 2006 like, well, me, handed back an outright win when all he needed was a par.

Ahhh, life with Lefty.

After Mickelson's meltdown, the lead was handed to Justin Rose. You know Rose, right? The fresh-faced Brit who came out of nowhere at the age of 17 to be runner-up at his country's Open. One of the most well-liked players on the Tour. A combined oh-for-37 in major championships. Oh, and another guy who has thrown some late lightning at Mickelson to take away victory.

At last year's Ryder Cup, Phil was leading his singles match with Rose when the Brit knocked down bombs on the final three holes to snatch away a U.S. point in a pivotal European blitz to come from behind and retain the Cup. Yet it was Mickelson, graciously clapping and encouraging Rose with a smile on his face, even as his heart was being ripped out for the umpteenth time.

Heading down the stretch, there was one more bite of crunched numbers that gave FOL (Friends of Lefty) a last glimmer of hope: Rose had played the final five holes in a combined plus-6 over the first three days, while Mickelson played the same holes to a sweet tune of one-under. Surely, this would give the story a happy ending.

It did. Except for the FOL.

Both players played those final five at plus-two. But as Mickelson spent the rest of the back nine flirting-but-not-converting birdie chances, Rose closed out his first major like a champion. He made par on 17 with the help of a nice approach out of the rough, and then after lasering his drive on 18 to within ten feet of the Hogan One-Iron marker on 18, he striped his second shot at the pin in two-putt par range.

After waiting out Mickelson's desperation attempt at a birdie from an 18th hole that hadn't been birdied all week, Rose was overcome with emotion: the rush of winning his first major mixed with thoughts of his two kids, whose names are stitched to the heel of his golf shoes, and his dad, who died of leukemia in 2002.

For his part, Mickelson was again sportsmanlike in defeat, describing his round in an interview as "heartbreak", and "tough to swallow." He went on to pour out his guts: "This was my best chance of all of them (runners-up). I had a golf course I really liked. I felt this was as good an opportunity as you could ask for. It really hurts."

And that's the kind of guy you hurt along with. But not for long, because if he feels frustration, it only comes up when he's asked about it. His parents were on the course today, watching their son, and surely, sharing his pain. But they'll all make the flight back to the West Coast, and Mickelson will be with his family, and life will be good again. He seems to have it figured out that second place (again) isn't really first loser.

In the larger sense, he's not in such a bad place at all.

Until next time...

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