Phil Mickelson dares Winged Foot’s haunting U.S. Open memories once more


KENNETH FERRIE WAS already cooked when he stood near Phil Mickelson on the 72nd tee of the United States Open. The Englishman could have slipped under the ropes inside Winged Foot, the Yankee Stadium of golf, and joined the thousands of New Yorkers cheering for their left-hander to close it out.

Ferrie, who had started the round tied for the lead with Mickelson, had lost hold of that epic Sunday in 2006, so he converted from contender to fan. And like nearly every other fan on the course, he wanted Mickelson to win.

Lefty had hit two fairways all afternoon. Two. You absolutely cannot win the U.S. Open at Winged Foot by hitting only two fairways. But sure enough, Mickelson stood there on the tee with a driver and a one-stroke lead in his hands, an escape artist about to put David Blaine to shame.

“It was like watching an absolute master,” Ferrie says now from his Newcastle, England, home. “Seve [Ballesteros] was a superstar magician, but I never saw Seve in his prime. Watching Phil was like watching someone who was superhuman. For him to be hitting it left and right on that course, and to be standing on the 18th at 2 over, it was one of the best rounds of golf I’ve ever seen.”

All these years later, as the U.S. Open returns to storied Winged Foot, that’s what few people recall about 2006. Though it stands as the 50-year-old Mickelson’s most devastating defeat, costing him the only major trophy he still hasn’t won, that tournament defined his greatness too.

Phil never would have blown up on the final hole if he didn’t play like Phil. And Phil never would have had a prayer of winning his third consecutive major — right smack in the middle of Tiger Woods’ prime — if he hadn’t played like Phil.

Maybe you had to be there to really understand. It had been such a feel-good week for the world’s second-ranked golfer, who was coming off a second Masters victory that, paired with his 2005 PGA Championship title, inspired talk of Lefty potentially ripping off four consecutive majors for a Mickel-Slam. He no longer carried the burden of being the game’s finest player without a major title to his name. (He had gone 0-for-his-first-46.) Mickelson was making the most of his liberation.

His wife, Amy, and his parents, Phil Sr. and Mary, were among the family members and friends in the gallery that week, basking in the affection New Yorkers have always had for Mickelson, a native of San Diego; their love affair carried on without Phil or any entourage member offering an adequate reason. The best explanation anyone could come up with? New Yorkers love daring people, and Mickelson was nothing if not daring.

THAT SATURDAY NIGHT, Phil was really feeling it, just like he had felt it two months earlier at Augusta National, where Woods put the green jacket over his shoulders. Mickelson had just completed his best nine holes of the tournament on the brutally difficult par-70 course, hitting his last five fairways to shoot 33, and he said he was looking forward to eating dinner with Amy, getting their kids showered and in bed, and falling asleep around midnight with a million thoughts in his head.

“Your mind races,” Mickelson said of sleeping on the third-round lead. “It’s the greatest feeling, that nervousness.”

But the next day on the range, Mickelson was back to hitting the ball as poorly as he’d hit it Friday and the first half of Saturday. Lefty was so desperate to find his swing, or any swing, that he left himself precious little time to practice his putting before heading to the first tee of a course he would call the toughest U.S. Open venue of all.

In preparation for this moment, Mickelson had played more springtime rounds at Winged Foot than two-thirds of the club’s membership. He was not in ideal physical shape; his upper body and outsize belly gave him the appearance of an offensive lineman with his hometown Chargers. But Mickelson had notes on every conceivable shot the course required. During prior trips to the New York area, he had intentionally played the final four holes in twilight to simulate crunch-time conditions on Sunday. He had charged Callaway’s chief club designer, Roger Cleveland, to design him a 64-degree wedge specifically for Winged Foot — a club that would save Mickelson numerous strokes during the tournament.

Phil the swashbuckler had added a new personality, Phil the thinker, in his recently successful formula of scouting every blade of grass at major venues. “It’s like having Palmer the scrambler and Nicklaus in the same body,” said his coach, Rick Smith, said at the time.

Woods had missed the cut (for the first time in a major as a pro) in his first tournament after his father’s death six weeks earlier, so the stage was clear for Mickelson to announce himself as the world’s best player, no matter what the rankings said. He had a chance to join Woods as the only men to win three consecutive major starts in more than half a century.

Mickelson’s most formidable opponent would be the severe rough, narrow fairways, undulating greens and deep bunkers of Winged Foot’s West Course, which he had described as a ballpark on steroids. In the early 1920s, members of the New York Athletic Club had instructed architect A.W. Tillinghast to build them a “man-sized course,” and Tillie did as he was told. In fact, he built two, East and West, with the West more difficult to tame.

Mickelson said he wasn’t afraid to be bloodied; he talked of how much he enjoyed the USGA’s once-a-year test of wills. On Father’s Day, two days after his 36th birthday, Mickelson held a significant advantage in experience over the 27-year-old Ferrie, a tall and hot-tempered U.S. Open rookie who wore a Superman belt buckle and had recently committed to a fitness regimen and lost 56 pounds.

Mickelson knew virtually nothing about Ferrie, who had played two years of junior college golf in Texas, and, of course, the two-time European Tour winner knew everything about Mickelson. Ferrie recalls how early in the round, Lefty politely asked him some questions about his background and his prior rounds that week, about where he was playing next. But halfway through the front nine, the small talk ended.

“Phil faced a lot of polarizing opinions back then; people loved him and people hated him,” Ferrie says. “But he was an absolute gentleman with me. He wouldn’t hole out on the green. He would put a mark on his ball and wait to finish so the crowd wouldn’t run away while I was putting. … We had nothing really in common. We were just drawn together on this Sunday, and we each said ‘Good shot’ when the other hit a good shot.”

Ferrie found a lot of fairways in this final round but stood in awe of Mickelson’s recovery skills after Phil carried his dreadful range session onto the course. “There’s not another player in the world who could have managed his game that day like that,” Ferrie says. “If I hit it in the places he did off the tee, I wouldn’t have broken 80.”

Ferrie would shoot 76 and along the way take mental notes of how Mickelson scrambled. Lefty dodged enough trouble in the rough to somehow carry a two-stroke lead to the 16th, where a bogey turned up the heat in the fading sunlight. Mickelson sent his next drive whistling wide left into a trash bin, of all things, before taking a drop near the tree line, hitting a bold approach onto the green and making par to walk to the 18th tee with a one-stroke lead over Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who had chipped in on 17 to remain in contention and was now in the 18th fairway, his ball in a sand-filled divot.

Up ahead, Mickelson caught a break when Colin Montgomerie made double bogey from the 18th fairway after hitting an inexplicably awful 7-iron shot — when a par would have ultimately won the tournament. Lefty still looked a bit haunted when he selected his club for his first stroke on the 450-yard, right-to-left 18th, before Ogilvy’s final approach came up short. On the NBC broadcast, after chiding Mickelson for using his driver on 17, Johnny Miller said, “This better be a 4-wood.” It was a driver. Mickelson simply did not believe his 4-wood against the wind would reach the dogleg, and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, agreed with him.

This was the moment. This was the tournament Mickelson had dreamed of winning as a boy hitting wedges over lemon and tangerine trees onto the kidney-shaped green his father installed in their backyard. He teed up his ball on the far left side of the box, with fans and trees closely lined up on either side of him, affording him the narrowest of chutes. Lefty planned to deploy the “bread-and-butter shot” he uses on the 13th at Augusta, a baby carve slice, but he eased up too much on his swing. Immediately after making contact, Mickelson uttered “Oh, no” as he retreated in disgust from the sight of his ball sailing way, way left toward the Champions Pavilion hospitality tent, which gave it a favorable bounce back into a trampled-down patch of rough.

“Right now, Ben Hogan is officially rolled over in his grave,” Miller said on the air. “I cannot believe he didn’t hit 4-wood there.”

Soon enough, Ogilvy was executing a brilliant pitch from in front of the elevated final green and then holing his short, par-saving putt to take the clubhouse lead at 5 over. “Well,” the Australian thought to himself, “second in the Open is pretty good.” Mickelson needed only a par to win, a bogey to qualify for an 18-hole playoff with Ogilvy on Monday.

Lefty was near the hospitality tent, 201 yards from the hole, with considerable tree trouble to navigate. “And I thought, ‘This is going to be a piece of cake,'” Phil Sr. says now. “Phil had just practiced the shot he needed on the previous hole. I thought, ‘He just has to hit that same shot again and he’s home free.'”

Phil Sr. was right there in the gallery for that second shot, the one that would decide it all. So was current USGA CEO Mike Davis, who was officiating the Mickelson-Ferrie group. Davis cleared spectators away from the ball, then studied Mickelson’s slight downhill lie in a small clump of grass. Davis thought the lie wasn’t as clean as it looked on TV.

“I just remember before he played the shot thinking, ‘This is why tournament pros are so much better than the rest of us,'” Davis recalls. The official then surveyed the main obstacle between the ball and the target and thought to himself, “How can you possibly get over or around this big maple tree?”

THIS IS HOW Mickelson was taught to play. His mother was the gregarious personality in the home, a nurse fond of playing a practical joke or three. His father was a stoic, the disciplined Navy fighter pilot who once intercepted an encroaching Soviet bomber jet in some tense Cold War sparring that ended safely, for all parties, above the Sea of Japan. And yet Phil Sr. was the one who counseled their son to go for broke on the golf course.

Phil, a natural righty, learned to play left-handed as a child while standing opposite his right-handed dad and duplicating his swing. Phil was 12 or 13 years old when Phil Sr. asked him, “Why would you play golf and do what everybody in your foursome might do on a weekend? We have to lay up on a par-5. Don’t you think people who come out to watch golf would like to see somebody hit the green rather than lay up?”

Ferrie thought that Mickelson would wedge his ball into the fairway and leave himself a 100-yard shot to the flag. Given how Lefty was hitting that club, Ferrie says, “I couldn’t see him ending up more than 6 feet from the hole.” But Phil being Phil, he chose 3-iron and the option of a cut shot around the tree that would stop rolling on or around the green. As he stood over his ball, fans were shouting, “You got that shot, Phil. Come on, Phil. You got it, big dog. Let’s do it.”

The crowd roared on impact. Then the cheers almost instantly transitioned into groans. Mickelson’s over-cut liner smacked into the tree and bounced back toward him, stopping 30 yards from where he’d hit it. Lefty’s look of determination had bled from his face, replaced by shock and despair. “It looks like he aged five years on that shot,” Miller said on air.

Now Mickelson had little choice but to go up and over the tree with an 8-iron and then to try for a two-putt bogey and the playoff. But his third shot headed straight for the greenside bunker on the left and crash-landed into a recreational hacker’s fried-egg lie. Just as Montgomerie and Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington had blown opportunities on the 18th, Mickelson was coming undone. Miller kept blasting Mickelson’s decision-making on the broadcast. “You don’t have to run down the last stretch on a white stallion,” said the analyst and 1973 U.S. Open champ. “You can limp in there and say, ‘Thanks for the trophy.'”

As Mickelson entered the bunker, fans chanted, “Let’s go Phil.” His name was atop the giant scoreboard behind him, and he was enjoying the most spectacular short-game week of his life. But truth was, his Open was already closed. Even Mickelson wasn’t saving bogey out of that lie. He blasted out of the trap and watched helplessly as his ball ran across the green and tumbled into the deep rough. Inside the scoring room, Ogilvy was standing behind his pregnant wife, Juli, who turned to her right with a stunned look on her face. She smiled and stuck out her tongue. Her husband smiled too.

With seemingly half of Westchester County waiting in the fairway shadows below, waiting to have its collective heart broken, Mickelson ran his desperation chip past the right side of the cup, sending the Ogilvys into each other’s arms. Mickelson then waited for Ferrie to putt; the Englishman had done exactly what Lefty needed to do, hitting the fairway and green in regulation for a stress-free par. Phil lowered himself into a crouch, rested his putter on his right shoulder and put both hands on his head before peering into the fairway as the crowd headed for the parking lots. He then dropped his head and clasped his hands as if in prayer, before rising and making his 8-footer for double bogey to complete his fourth second-place finish at the U.S. Open. Phil removed his cap and nodded his head to acknowledge the deflated applause.

FERRIE PUTTED OUT to finish in a tie for sixth and qualify for the 2007 Masters, then shook Mickelson’s hand. “I was gutted for him,” Ferrie says. Everyone was gutted for Phil, especially his father, who stood outside the clubhouse looking as pale as a ghost.

“I didn’t think about me at all, as far as it being Father’s Day,” Phil Sr. says. “I was just thinking of what a disappointment it was going to be for him and how disappointed he was for the people who were supporting him. I was really proud of his resilience. … He also signed autographs after that, and I don’t think there are many people you would expect that from.”

Mickelson and his wife sat side by side, quietly, at a table in the scoring area; Phil fell back into the chair and dropped his head back over his shoulders. This one hurt even more than the breakdown at Shinnecock two years earlier, when he held a one-stroke lead with two holes to play before a rock under his ball in a bunker contributed to a fatal double bogey. On his last two Winged Foot holes, Mickelson had landed in the trash, in the rough and in the sand, and had hit a tent and a tree. He played those last four — the holes he’d repeatedly practiced in twilight — in 3 over par.

“Well, I am still in shock that I did that,” Mickelson said in his news conference. “I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot.

“This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won. … I think the biggest reason why this is so disappointing is that this is a tournament that I dreamt of winning as a kid, that I spent hours practicing, I mean, countless hours practicing. … I came out here weeks and months in advance to get ready and had it right there in my hand, man. It was right there and I let it go. I just cannot believe I did that.”

Mickelson would later tell ESPN, “I really believe that the ghosts of former USGA presidents were looking down and saying, ‘No one should win the Open hitting 2 of 14 fairways.'”

The Monday after Winged Foot, the master of his own disasters, Arnold Palmer, told a reporter, “Been there, done that.” Palmer, in his prime, had blown a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go at the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic before losing a playoff to Billy Casper. Arnie said that he was confident Mickelson would bounce back and that he might write Phil a note to tell him he “shouldn’t let it ruin a great life and a great run.”

Mickelson would go on to win two more majors, endure two more runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open and collect 44 PGA Tour victories in all. And though he hasn’t won on that tour in 19 months, Mickelson did just win his first Champions Tour event three weeks ago ahead of his return to Winged Foot this week, where the tournament will be played three months late and without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic. If Mickelson finally wins this championship, at 50, he would do it without a huge crowd of New Yorkers in the house to celebrate his redemptive tale.

OF THE LONG SHOT prospect of his son winning the U.S. Open this Sunday, Phil Sr. says, “I truly believe it is more than doable.

“I think he’s hitting the ball right now as well as if not better than he ever has. I talked to him about it. I remember playing some of my best golf when I was in my 50s, and I said to him, ‘I don’t see why you couldn’t expect the same.'”

Meanwhile, Mickelson has used comic relief to deal with the most painful of his record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. In 2016, when his brother, Tim, played in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Winged Foot, Phil told him he would give him advice only on the first 17 holes. In a current TV ad, Mickelson promises a free driver to a lucky contest entrant whose favorite Callaway golfer wins the U.S. Open. “Come on,” Phil says in the promo, “we all know who it’s going to be. When have I ever let you down at Winged Foot?” Mickelson also tweeted last week, “Heard someone placed 45k on me to win the open at 75-1 (pays 3.3 mil). Hoping for both of us I have a 3 shot lead on 18 tee.”

In the end, if the 72nd hole showed you why Lefty hasn’t won 10 majors, the first 71 showed you why he was entertaining as hell while winning five.

Phil Mickelson is neither afraid to fail nor afraid to succeed. So if he is somehow in the lead Sunday evening, don’t be surprised, or angry, when he pulls out a driver on the 18th tee.

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