Since Jack Nicklaus bestrode the earth, only one golfer has won more PGA Tour events than Phil Mickelson — some guy named Tiger Woods. Lefty's next victory will be his 40th, which would push him past Tom Watson and Gene Sarazen, pull him even with Cary Middlecoff and leave Walter Hagen (45) squarely in his headlights — with Billy Casper (51) just around the corner.
That's the company he keeps now — the residents of Legends Lane. Still, Mickelson's has been one of the stranger golf journeys. His accomplishments, though considerable, have been dwarfed by Woods, and he figures to be remembered as much for what he almost did as for what he did do. The man, after all, has almost won five U.S. Opens, finishing an agonizing second each time. Inasmuch as nobody has won more than four, well, just think of the history he's flirting with there.
He's at Congressional, of course, for the 2011 Open, trying to turn his 0-for-20 into a 1-for-21. (Heck, even Susan Lucci broke the Emmy ice in her 19th try.) And at 41 — his birthday is Thursday — he's very much the elder statesman now, constantly fielding questions about the state of American golf ("in good shape," despite increasing competition from Europe and elsewhere) and about prospects of whippersnappers, like Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, who are threatening to take over the game.
"A very complete player," Phil pronounced at his media gathering Tuesday. "And he's still only 20?"
"Nineteen," he was informed.
"Nineteen? Wow. So if he can hire a driver, he should be all set."
Even for a player of Mickelson's stature, being 41 puts you at the outer limits as a contender. Only six Open champs, after all, have been older — and only one, Hale Irwin (45 in 1990) has been much older. But Lefty will have none of that talk.
"I feel terrific," he said, "in that I'm more flexible and stronger than I've been in a long time. I've been able to handle or manage symptoms from the arthritis that I've had and have been able to work out. I feel like my golf swing, which is longer and a little bit more flowing — it's not quite as violent — has led me not having any injuries now at 41. And I've been fortunate in that regard. So I feel pretty good and feel like I should be able to compete for quite a while. I don't want to put any time pressure on my ability or belief in my ability to win."
Maybe he can compete a while longer. He won at Houston, you may have noticed, in April, and has finished in the money every time out this year. But it's hard not to look back achingly on what might have been. For those who haven't committed them to memory — or perhaps have blocked them out — here are the details of his five Open near misses:
• 1999, Pinehurst — Was headed to a playoff when Payne Stewart ran in a 15-footer on the 72nd hole to win it.
• 2002, Bethpage Black — Couldn't catch Tiger on the final day, but he did out-golf him (70 to 72).
• 2004, Shinnecock — Three-putted from 5 feet on 17 to hand the title to Retief Goosen.
• 2006, Winged Foot — His "I am such an idiot" moment. With a one-shot lead on the last hole, he sliced his drive near a hospitality tent, hit a branch with his next shot and buried himself in a bunker with his third. Double bogey.
• 2009, Bethpage Black - Acquitted himself well on Sunday with a relatively hiccup-free 70. Alas, winner Lucas Glover had five strokes to burn.
And let's not forget the '95 Open, also at Shinnecock. Mickelson was just a stroke back going into the final day, but a 74 dropped him into a tie for fourth. He brought that one up himself Tuesday.
"I learned a lot from the [first] loss at Shinnecock," he said. "Corey Pavin won, and a lot of people don't even know I really was in it. ... I played the [par-5] 16th hole 6 over par [for the week], and it ended up costing me the tournament. A lot of times in the U.S. Open, a par-5, which I normally think of as a birdie hole, is the toughest par. It's changed my thought process about being overly aggressive on the par-5s.
"Since then I've kind of figured out how to manage myself around, control my misses and salvage pars the hard way. I'm not going to play perfect golf. I'm not going to hit every fairway. But there are times I can manage it and advance the ball far enough to salvage pars, and that's allowed me to be in contention a number of times."
From the sound of things, Mickelson loves Congressional. He considers No. 18 — a hefty 523 yards to an anxiety-inducing peninsula green — to be "the epitome of a great golf hole." He's thrilled that the USGA has "made the hard holes harder and kept the easy holes easy." This, he explained, gives you tons of opportunities to come from behind - either by making pars on the toughies or birdies on the gimmes.
But does Congressional love Lefty back? His record there isn't exactly sterling. He was a distant 43rd in the '97 Open, and didn't fare much better in the 2005 Booz Allen (T-29) or the '07 AT&T National (missed cut). Those are his three and only appearances on the property.
No matter. With Tiger back in the body shop, Mickelson is the Resident Immortal on the U.S. side this week. So take a good look at him in the next few days as the older, wiser Lefty selectively goes for it — and tries to win the elusive Open.
And while you're doing it, ask yourself this: Since he's bypassed the last two AT&Ts, and the Open won't be returning to Congressional for at least another decade, could this be the last time he plays in Washington?
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