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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

US Open Week: On Phil Mickelson, Ghosts, and Golf Gods

Minivan Dad

I'm a golfer. I believe in the Golf Gods. This week, how could I not?

The US Open returns this week to Pinehurst Resort, to No. 2, the Donald Ross masterpiece in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The last time the Open was played there in 2005, Michael Campbell of New Zealand managed to momentarily capture the promise of his youth, capturing the title and defeating Tiger Woods by 2 strokes. The course has been renovated since, by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, to a closer approximation of Ross' original design intent. It's going to resemble a British links course, except that it will wind its way through beautiful pine trees. The greens will still be as Ross intended, like giant, lopsided, Galapagos tortoise shells. (No joke. I played there twice. Those things are crazy!) It's gonna be really cool, if NBC has any luck at all in its final US Open broadcast before the USGA turns the Open over to Fox Sports' hype machine. 

It will be a very different test than in 2005, which is just as well, because it isn't the memory of 2005 that will hover over this tournament. There will be 156 golfers competing. There are only two that really matter right now, before the Open begins, and one of them isn't even in the field. And no, it's not Tiger Woods.

In the 1999 US Open, Payne Stewart defeated Phil Mickelson to win his second Open, and third major title. Mickelson's wife Amy was expecting to go into labor any minute for the birth of their first child. The story was that Mickelson was carrying a beeper in case Amy went into labor, and that he would withdraw from the tournament as soon as he got the call. The call never came, and the two men battled head-to-head in the final group that Sunday, on Father's Day. Mickelson missed a few short putts over the last few holes, and Stewart holed a twisting, uphill 15-footer for par on 18 to cement the victory. In the gathering dusk, Stewart put his hands on either side of Mickelson's face, pulled him close and said "You're going to be a father..." If you haven't seen the video, don't worry, you will. A lot. If Mickelson is in contention, or in the lead on Sunday, it will probably play in a continuous loop in the upper right corner of our television screens. 

Stewart was 42, Mickelson 29. Stewart had a classic rhythmic swing. He was handsome with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was a dynamic dresser, with knickers and plus-fours and old-style caps. He had an endorsement deal with the NFL. All of his ensembles were designed with the color schemes of football teams, always with the local team's colors reserved for Sundays. As a younger pro he was perceived as being unable to win big tournaments, as well as being considered cocky and arrogant. He had matured, though, and so had his golf. In 1989, he won the PGA Championship outside Chicago. In 1991, he won the US Open at Hazeltine in Minnesota. Just the year before Pinehurst, he had lost an excruciating battle to Lee Janzen at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in the 1998 US Open, just as he had in 1993 at Baltustrol in New Jersey. He was charitable and well-liked, and extremely popular with fans. By June 1999, even casual sports fans knew who Payne Stewart was. After his embrace of Mickelson's face on the 18th green, everyone else knew too. 

Less than 5 months later, Stewart was gone. A private plane in which he was flying suddenly lost cabin pressure in flight, and all of the passengers were incapacitated. The plane itself, on autopilot, flew for several hours before running out of fuel and crashing in South Dakota. It was a grisly image. A vibrant, charitable, popular reigning US Open Golf champion, a man finally fully realized, lying unconscious in a ghostly plane, flying uncontrolled until it ran out of fuel. It was a bleak contrast to the vision of Payne in the North Carolina dusk.


The 1999 US Open was really the first major championship that Phil Mickelson had any chance to win. Mickelson turned professional in 1992 after a college career at Arizona State that included a PGA Tour win in the 1991 Tucson Open. There hasn't been a win on Tour by an amateur since then. Tiger Woods was just a scrawny kid winning USGA Junior Amateurs. Mickelson was the player that anyone who followed golf was expecting to take the world by storm. Everyone knew the adorable story that he played golf left-handed because he had stood opposite his father as a toddler and mirrored his swing. Mickelson the golfer was a natural-born prodigy. He wasn't created and trained. He just... was. He was good-looking, daring, and seemingly genuine. Golf was being dominated by European players, and Greg Norman was the most exciting figure in the game. Mickelson was the all-American answer, the heir to Arnold Palmer's goodwill Army.

And then a funny thing happened. Mickelson was... good. He won tournaments. He was exciting to watch when he was playing well. But at the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship, and The PGA Championship, he was just ok. Fans started to wonder if he was like many very good but not great golfers, who would win tournaments but not be able to win the Majors that defined the all-time champions. 

Tiger Woods had already eclipsed Phil, winning his first professional major, the 1997 Masters. By the summer of 1999, Tiger's arrival and immediate results made Mickelson look like a guy whose window for greatness had slammed shut with alarming quickness. (Tiger would win his second Major that August, at the 1999 PGA Championship.) 

Although Mickelson played well in the Majors following the Pinehurst Open, posting additional 2nd and 3rd place finishes through 2003, what he didn't do was win one. Woods did. A lot. Tiger of 2000-01 is likely the greatest golfer who ever lived, or will live. As Tiger's dominance reached it's peak, so did Mickelson's reputation as a guy who couldn't get it done when it really mattered. It was widely reported that he not well-liked on the PGA Tour, and his nickname from the other players was not so flattering. (Google FIGJAM and Phil Mickelson and draw your own conclusions!) Whether it all was true or not, the point was that it was in the background. Tiger was the one whose intense exterior was a protective mechanism, but the real Tiger was just one of the guys. Mickelson was the one who seemed to be on the brink of being perceived as that most dreaded American public figure. The Phony.

In 2002, something happened on Long Island. The US Open was held on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Tiger Woods won the tournament. Mickelson finished 2nd, but the enormous crowd embraced Phil as their chosen underdog. They cheered him loudly every hole, every day. They serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" (Mickelson's birthday is June 16). He soaked it in, he enjoyed it, and he showed that to the huge galleries. Mickelson became the daring challenger to Tiger's uber-winner. Crowds cheered him everywhere he went. Then in 2004, Mickelson birdied the 18th hole at Augusta National to win the Masters. He returned to the adoring New York crowd, and won the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol in New Jersey. He showed up at Krispy Kreme donuts and invested in In-N-Out Burger. And he won the 2006 Masters. He wasn't just a guy who couldn't win the big one anymore.

What didn't change was that he kept finishing 2nd at the US Open. He had a chance in 2004  at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, but putted poorly, finishing 2nd for the third time. In 2006, he had a disastrous 6 on the 18th hole of the final round of the US Open at Winged Foot, famously admitting afterward, "I'm such an idiot." He also did crazy stuff. In 2008, when Tiger won the US Open at Torrey Pines in California before undergoing surgery for a torn ACL, Mickelson played the longest US Open course in history, at the time, without a driver. By choice. (A bad choice, as it turned out.) That, after winning the 2006 Masters carrying two! Now that he had won several majors, though, the vulnerability he showed in defeat became endearing. He let us know that he wanted it. That he was going for it.

In 2009, fate dropped in on Mickelson. It was revealed in the spring that Amy Mickelson had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Later that year, his mother would also be diagnosed with the disease. His family difficulties cemented his connection to the public, and went well outside the sport. Women who previously had no interest in golf started to pull for him. Breast cancer survivors, patients, and their families wanted to know how "that nice Phil Mickelson" was doing. He took time off, and then played the US Open at Bethpage. He almost won, making a charge on Sunday before finishing tied for 2nd behind Lucas Glover. The response to his presence was overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and he seemed genuinely moved and grateful. Instead of the rumblings of before, there were stories of quiet charitable acts and personal kindness. The public was in awe of Tiger, but people loved Mickelson. And then, Thanksgiving 2009 happened.

I'm not going to delve into, or judge, the details of Tiger Woods' personal scandal here. Maybe some other time. Some other time, too, I'll relay my own brief, enjoyable encounter with young Tiger Woods and his father. (Edit: I did. It's here.) But this is about Mickelson and Stewart and Pinehurst and ghosts and demons and Golf Gods. Tiger can wait.

As Tiger's personal life unraveled, the contrast with Mickelson became more glaring. Tiger became the Phony, and Mickelson was the devoted father and family man, who was supporting his wonderful wife through an illness that so many women have had to battle. Right on cue, Mickelson added a flourish when he won the 2010 Masters. There wasn't a dry eye at Augusta National when Phil walked off the 18th green and into Amy's arms. It was now official. Mickelson was finally The Guy. (As it turned out, he was also the guy with psoriatic arthritis, which was confirmed that August.) 

Last summer could have made this Open much less dramatic, but the Golf Gods clearly had other intentions for Pinehurst. Mickelson had a devastating loss at the 2013 US Open last June at Merion Golf Club, outside of Philadelphia, ultimately finishing 2nd to Justin Rose. Rose was a worthy champion who played his heart out, honoring the memory of his father who had recently died of cancer. Everyone was happy for Rose, who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who deserved the win. But Mickelson had the tournament in his grasp on the back nine of the final round, and let it slip away. He had just been so, Phil, flying home for his daughter's eighth grade promotion ceremony, skipping rainy practice rounds, and then pulling himself into contention. When he holed out from the fairway on the 10th hole on Sunday, Main Line Philly was rocking. But he couldn't close the deal, and he was very candid about how devastated he was that he had finished 2nd yet again. A sixth time. Everyone wondered whether he had let his best chance slip away. And then everyone started to think about Pinehurst this summer. Mickelson's loss at Merion only raised the stakes. 

But that wasn't enough, apparently. The Golf Gods decided some added amusement was in order. With a masterful Sunday charge and a remarkable closing 66, Phil Mickelson followed up a win at the Scottish Open in July with a win the next week at the 2013 Open Championship (British Open) at Muirfield. Phil was surprised and emotional, he himself having always considered The Open Championship as the least likely Major for him to win. It was a stunning victory, and even the most cynical fan had to smile at the sight of Phil's bawling caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, and of Phil surrounded in the fading twilight by his healthy wife and children.

It's hard to imagine being able to make this week more dramatic, but should Mickelson win this US Open, it will mark the completion of a career Grand Slam. Six golfers in history have completed a career Grand Slam. Six. Only 5 of them are professionals, with Bobby Jones' slam including the US Amateur and the British Amateur. (Another story, maybe written about once or twice!) Nicklaus, Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen. Not Arnold Palmer. Not Tom Watson. Not Lee Trevino or Byron Nelson. Winning a career Grand Slam in golf would place Mickelson in an undisputed realm of achievement. It is a pantheon accomplishment in professional sports.


I wouldn't begin to presume to say what it would mean to Phil Mickelson to win this week. He flies in private jets. He earns millions in endorsements and engagements. He has his faults, too. He gambles for big money. He said a couple of things about taxes he shouldn't have. He is currently cooperating with the FBI on a possible insider trading investigation. They're mostly rich guy faults, but hey, he's a rich guy. By all accounts he is very charitable. He is a spokesperson for childhood education, and for arthritis medication, and a symbol of support for breast cancer patients. The point is, we see him as a man now, not a 29-year old expecting father with as-yet unrealized potential. 

He has experienced success, failure, happiness, tragedy, health, prosperity, illness... life. He has done it on a public stage. He has gone from phenom to underachiever to the brink of athletic immortality. Payne Stewart knew about all of this when he embraced him 15 years ago on that 18th green. He had lived it himself. Who knows what Stewart would have been able to accomplish in golf had he lived, having reached the point he had finally reached as a man? 

Stewart's legacy and Mickelson's life are forever linked. I never met Payne Stewart, and I don't know Phil Mickelson. It doesn't matter, because this week there is only one man that I want to win the US Open. If he doesn't win, or especially if he cruelly finishes 2nd, then next week we can all write about a Carolina Curse.

But I'm a golfer. I believe that the Golf Gods have conspired to bring Phil Mickelson back to Pinehurst for the crowning achievement of his career, and to honor the legacy of Payne Stewart. That powerful Pinehurst moment, 15 years ago, deserves a bookend.