Our National Open is golf’s version of walking on hot coals, lying on a bed of nails. It is mental anguish and misery. You want birdies and red numbers bleeding the leaderboard? Pick one of the other 52 weeks. The U.S. Open is measured by grueling par-4s on 500-yard holes, pin positions set by the devil, and blast-furnace pressure even on cool, misty days like the 1999 closing round at Pinehurst No. 2.
There may never be another like it, even as the best golfers in the world return to Pinehurst, N.C., this week for another go at the venerable lady. The ’99 edition will be remembered for Payne Stewart’s par-saving, winning putt on the 72nd hole, maybe the most climactic and dramatic putt to ever end an Open. And, of course, the history must include Stewart’s tragic death in a plane crash barely four months later.
And it must also be remembered as the first that eluded Phil Mickelson. The lefty has finished runner-up in the Open a record six times. He has given ’em away (Shinnecock Hills, 2004; Winged Foot, 2006), had them leak away (Merion, last June), and had them snatched away, which is what happened at Pinehurst.
That was surely headed for a playoff, Phil having a virtual tap-in for par and Payne looking at a practically impossible 15-footer for par over a ridge on one of those Donald Ross greens that looks like an inverted soup bowl.
Stewart had missed the 18th fairway and found a bad lie to boot. He played his second shot 75 yards short of the green and chipped to 15 feet. From one side of the cup it read left to right. From the other it read right to left. Regardless, if and when it hit the ridge at anything but ideal speed it could go anywhere, left, right, 10 inches or 10 feet. It had to be perfect, it was, and Stewart sliced the wind with a triumphant closed fist.
“Payne showed a lot of character, especially on his last few putts,” Mickelson said late on that Father’s Day afternoon. “I just didn’t have that little extra that Payne showed on those.”
Mickelson had just turned 29 and the ’99 Open was his first runner-up finish. No big deal. But there have been five since and he will turn 44 the day after this Open ends. Now there is a sense of urgency because he has won golf’s other three majors and there is a small and career-defining club — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods — who have won all four of the modern majors. The career grand slam.
“What I’m feeling … the guys that have won all four I view in a different regard,” Mickelson said recently at the Memorial Tournament. “I’m fortunate and I’m honored to be part of that long list of great players that have won three of the four. That’s great. But it would mean a lot to me. I would look at myself, I would look at my career, which is all I care about, in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one.”
Hale Irwin won three Opens. Lee Janzen and Andy North won two. How can it be that Mickelson has come up empty in 23 tries? It is a tournament that rewards grinders, guys who recognize boring pars are good scores. Mickelson refuses to be boring. His most Open-like effort, lots of fairways and greens in regulation, was probably the one at Pinehurst that Payne Stewart snatched away.
Mickelson was brilliant on Sunday at Shinnecock in 2004, shooting 71 on a weathered, brown, almost crusty course when the average score was 78. But one lousy shot from a greenside bunker at the 17th hole did him in. At Winged Foot in ’06 he bogeyed the 16th hole in the final round when his approach from the rough plugged in a trap. It was a prelude to his double bogey off a hospitality tent, off a tree, then a fried-egg lie in a bunker at 18. Twice he three-putted for double bogeys early in the fourth round at Merion last year, but he was still positioned to win before bogeying three of the final six holes.
Despite the disappointment, sometimes the shock, he has always been honest and gracious in defeat.
“I just think it’s easier to be honest and up front about what I’m feeling,” he said. “I had such a down moment after losing at Merion, the same thing at Winged Foot. If you try to deny it and try to act like it doesn’t hurt and that it’s no big deal, well, you’re just lying to yourself.”
Can he make the hurt disappear in 2014? Good question. Mickelson is not far removed from a major championship — last summer’s British Open at Muirfield — but it has been a rough year. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since last August, the longest drought of his career, and he missed cuts at the Masters and the Players Championship. After the latter, he admitted, “Mentally, I’m just really soft right now.”
That won’t play in an Open, even at Pinehurst No. 2 where fairways are generous and pine straw rough is manageable. Its defense is its greens and it is a chip-and-putt golf course. It is made for Mickelson’s creative short game, if he can get it on track. It has not been great this year.
The clock is ticking on the National Open and the window for Phil’s career grand slam gets narrower by the year.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.