July 16, 2024
Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson at the 2006 U.S. Open, one of his several close calls.

In Phil Studies, students speak of the Four Stages of Phil: Prodigy Phil, Aw-Shucks Phil, Bad-Ass Phil — and his current stage.

Prodigy Phil was all dimples and promise. This Phil was a mega-talent, the low amateur in the 1990 and 1991 U.S. Opens and the winner of the ’90 U.S. Amateur in between them. Old hands at the USGA had never seen anything like him, all that California charm and left-handed, flop-shot magic. He was a USGA darling.

As a pro, he morphed into Aw-Shucks Phil. Phil at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, when he was the runner-up to Payne Stewart, with Phil and Amy on baby watch. Phil at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, when he was the runner-up to Tiger, in a period when pretty much nobody could beat Tiger, but Phil gave it the Lefty try! Phil at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when he was runner-up to Retief Goosen and could not be goaded into dissing the grassless greens. Phil at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, when, after finishing in a three-way tie for second, he appeared at the awards ceremony, while the other silver finishers, Jim Furyk and Colin Montgomerie, blew it off. Phil at the 2009 U.S. Open back at Bethpage, when Phil was the runner-up to Lucas Glover but offered thumbs-ups to anyone who looked his way — New York loved him — and rolled out with this message: Someday.

And then came a sixth second, in 2013, at the U.S. Open at Merion, and the emergence of Bad-Ass Phil. This Phil fussed with Mike Davis of the USGA over the course setup, during the fatal fourth round. This Phil declined the USGA’s invitation to accept its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award. This Phil was in the World Golf Hall of Fame but his days as an Establishment golfer were over.

It was Bad-Ass Phil who won the British Open at Muirfield, a month after Merion, and one of his messages was a USGA dig: A world-class course should never be tricked-up. It was BAP who took over the CBS broadcast at the 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park for one of the most entertaining hours in the history of televised golf, mocking Sir Nick, telling jokes, stealing the show. It was BAP who won the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah. He was 50 and ripped and he took down Brooks Koepka on Sunday without ever removing his shades or his gum. It was BAP who went to LIV, recklessly dissing the Saudi billionaires who were paying him so handsomely on his way there. BAP has been dismissive of the USGA’s attempt to slow down the golf ball and was vulgar in his analysis of the USGA’s decision not to offer Talor Gooch, Phil’s LIV Golf teammate, a spot in last year’s U.S. Open field.

But that was then and this is now. Mickelson will turn 54 on the Sunday of this year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst and his golf, by his standards — he tied for 43rd at Augusta — has been mediocre. If he’s playing weekend golf at the U.S. Open, it would be an accomplishment. Phil himself has been saying for a while now that his chances of ever winning a U.S. Open have pretty much come and gone, though not for lack of effort. The birth of Acceptance Phil.

Phil is starting to wrap things up here, in the narrow area of his national championship. He’s in next year’s field, via his 2021 PGA win, and he could try to qualify for Opens in 2026 and beyond, but it’s hard to see him doing that. The USGA could offer Phil a send-off exemption, but it’s unlikely Phil would accept it. The fracture in the USGA-Mickelson relationship is deep. What a shame. Phil Mickelson has been one of the monumental figures in USGA history. They need counseling.

Phil Mickelson has won the Masters three times, the PGA Championship twice, the British Open once. Like Sam Snead before him, he’ll likely always be one U.S. Open short of the career Grand Slam. Phil knows the score: Six seconds, no wins, and that summary will follow him forever. It’s confounding but wistfully beautiful too. Isn’t there something mournful and gorgeous about not having it all?

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