- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In the aftermath of Sunday’s spectacular 72nd-hole bonfire of insanity, the most compelling question left among the charred ruins of the 106th U.S. Open is this: How will Phil cope with the fallout?

On the Tuesday before the outrageous sequence of surprises at Winged Foot, Mickelson candidly explained his typical post-major routine.

“Well, contending in majors is very mentally and physically draining,” he said. “You don’t notice it during the event because whether you have adrenaline or whether your mind is just elsewhere, you don’t focus on it. But come Monday morning, I usually try to stay in bed for three or four days just to try to recover from it and relax.”

If triumphs at Baltusrol and Augusta National merited four days in the sack, what does squandering a third straight major on the final hole in career-defining, triple-slice, double-bogey fashion rate — three or four years of convalescence?

“This one is going to take a little while to get over. This one is pretty disappointing,” said Mickelson, who was so visibly shaken after throwing the Open to Australian Geoff Ogilvy one wonders if he’ll even be upright by the time the game’s best golfers convene next month at Royal Liverpool for the British Open (July 20-23).

Mickelson was one par away from being the biggest thing to hit Liverpool since the Beatles. He was a couple of 3-irons and a 2-putt from joining Hogan and Tiger in the three-peat pantheon and tripping to Hoylake with a chance at the Mickelslam. He was one hole from history, a couple of swings from potentially becoming one of the most celebrated sportsmen in history.

Instead, in the span of 10 minutes, he plummeted from living legend to the grandest of goats, impaling himself on the deadly combination of bent shots and crooked thinking.

He said hubris played no part in his club selection off the tee, claiming he’d have trouble reaching the 450-yard hole with anything less than a driver off the box. For a player who hits his 4-wood more than 260 yards and his 3-iron 230 yards, such claims are ludicrous.

More likely, Mickelson marched onto the 18th tee feeling bulletproof. That happens when you’re leading the Open despite hitting just two fairways in the final round. That happens when you’ve just extricated yourself from a garbage can en route to a crooked par on the 17th.

In the annals of final-hole meltdowns, Phil’s fiasco ranks right up there with Jean Van de Velde’s triple-bogey debacle at Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open. Like the Frenchman, Mickelson scores style points for both his technical and intellectual failures at the finish.

But that’s as far as the analogy goes. Unlike Van de Velde, Phil isn’t some third-tier, unknown journeyman with clown credentials.

The Van de Veldes of the golf world are supposed to make big numbers in the moment at majors. Mickelson is supposed to be the seasoned veteran at the majors. Though he’s certainly a more promising player than Van de Velde, Ogilvy played his part in the former role Sunday at Winged Foot, playing his final 11 holes 4-over. But Mickelson didn’t play his, throwing the offered spoils back at Ogilvy’s feet on the final hole.

And given the three-peat ramifications of Mickelson’s mighty miscue, it’s impossible to pinpoint a greater fall from potential glory in the game’s history. Has any athlete in our time ever been so close to something so special only to fail so spectacularly with one hand on history? The annals of golf certainly offer Mickelson no patsy.

Arnold Palmer famously blew a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to play in the 1966 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. But the King wasn’t making a three-peat bid, and nobody would equate Ogilvy to ‘66 winner Billy Casper, a three-time major champion who is sixth on the PGA Tour’s career victories list (51).

Frankly, given the stakes, his status, his competition and the ghastly shots and decisions involved, Mickelson’s meltdown might well be the worst in major history. And while such a spectacular failure is likely to make him even more popular among foible-smitten U.S. golf fans, it might be some time before Lefty returns to a major leader board.

Any major near-miss exacts an unmistakable competitive toll. Just ask Ernie Els, who still hasn’t recovered from a 2004 Slam season, when he was stung by Mickelson after the most scintillating back-nine exchange in decades at the Masters, sabotaged by the USGA at Shinnecock and dropped in a playoff by unheralded Todd Hamilton at Troon en route to a devastating 2-T9-2-T4 run in the majors.

The immensely gifted South African hasn’t been a factor in a major since, and none of those defeats, however painful, were as galling as Mickelson’s 72nd-hole swoon at the Open.

Here’s to hoping Lefty’s back on the board at Hoylake.

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