Sitting pretty? The flirty dozen and why Mickelson wants out

Phil Mickelson is one of only 12 men who sit one professional major shy of the 'career slam' - and this time the opportunity for the full set at the US Open is in his backyard
Sitting pretty? The flirty dozen and why Mickelson wants out

Phil Mickelson chats with coach Chris Como during a practice round ahead of Thursday's US Open at Torrey Pines . 

Here we are again at the junction of a major championship and grand slam history. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth missed their latest chances at the Masters and PGA Championship. Now it’s Phil Mickelson’s turn – again.  

In his hometown at Torrey Pines, where he’s won three times. Fresh off claiming another dramatic footnote as the oldest major winner at age 50 in last month’s PGA at Kiawah. The US Open commences the morning after Phil’s 51st birthday.

This is a song we all know by heart – Lefty and his unrequited love at his national championship. He finished runner-up a record six times in a 15-year span (40 percent!) from 1999 to 2013 – often in tragic fashion as he held at least shares of the lead on the closing nine of all but one of those silver-medal efforts.

It’s a pretty remarkable record for anyone, much less a guy whose driving accuracy has never been exactly USGA certified. Even his long-time rival Tiger Woods – who won the last U.S. Open at Torrey in 2008 but won’t be here this time because of injuries sustained in a February accident – has marveled at how Phil has long tilted valiantly at this particular windmill.

“Of all the events, you would think that this would be the (major) that he would have the least chance to win because of the way he’s driven it for most of his career,” Woods once said of Mickelson. 

“But that short game of his is off the charts. ... He’s made some of the more difficult pars that you have to make to win this tournament, it’s just that he hasn’t (won it). For him to be able to somehow pull it off at his age, to complete the career grand slam, would be an unbelievable task and unbelievable accomplishment.” 

Tiger said that three years ago, before Mickelson shocked the kids with a timeless display of his Hall of Fame skills in winning the PGA Championship on the windswept Ocean Course. And yet here he is again making his 30th start in the US Open, having given back the special exemption the USGA offered him by securing his tee time each June through 2025.

Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines' 14th during US Open practice. 
Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines' 14th during US Open practice. 

“It's a unique opportunity because I've never won a US Open – it's in my backyard,” Mickelson said Monday of his focus since his PGA triumph that included on-site studying at Torrey. “I have a chance to prepare properly, and I wanted to put in the right work. So I've kind of shut off all the noise. I've shut off my phone. I've shut off a lot of the other stuff to where I can kind of focus in on this week and really give it my best chance to try to play my best.

“Now, you always need some luck, you always need things to kind of come together and click, but I know that I'm playing well, and I just wanted to give myself every opportunity to be in play at my best.” 

Can Mickelson conjure magic once again and escape being one of golf’s “nearly men” and join its most exclusive club? Only five Hall of Famers have ever collected the “career slam” of professional majors – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods. It has become the Holy Grail of golfers to possess a green jacket, claret jug, U.S. Open trophy and Wanamaker trophy.

Mickelson is one of only 12 men who sit one professional major shy of this pinnacle, each with his own story of the one that got away.

Three of that Flirty Dozen have a pretty good excuse – the Masters Tournament didn’t exist when they were busy winning all the rest. Jim Barnes (2 PGAs, 1 U.S. and 1 Open) had stopped competing in majors by 1931, three years before the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament was played. Walter Hagen won the last of his 11 majors by repeating as Open champion in 1929. While he competed in four early Masters – his best finish a tie for 11th in 1936 – he was 41 when the Masters started and well past his prime. The same can be argued for Tommy Armour. The Silver Scot won each of the other professional majors once, but he was 37 when he played in the first of his seven Augusta starts, mustering his best a tie for eighth in 1937.

LEE Trevino and Rory McIlroy are the only modern-era golfers who lack only a green jacket on their major resumes. McIlroy is still chasing that white whale, going 0-7 since it became the last piece of his career-slam puzzle. Trevino had a complicated relationship with Augusta, never feeling comfortable at a place that he said would only have allowed him in the kitchen if he hadn’t qualified as player. He turned down invitations three times (1970, ’71 and ’74) during the peak of his career when he beat Jack Nicklaus four times on major stages from 1968-74, and one year he changed his shoes in the parking lot to avoid going in the clubhouse. Trevino later called his Augusta boycotts “the greatest mistake of my career” and lamented his attitude that scuttled his chances of winning there.

Byron Nelson and Raymond Floyd are the only gentlemen lacking a claret jug. Nelson only played the Open Championship once before his retirement as a touring professional, finishing fifth at Carnoustie in 1937, three months after winning his first of five career majors at the Masters. He only returned in semi-retirement to Britain in 1955 at age 43, tying for 32nd at St. Andrews. Floyd played 20 times in the Open Championship and had four top-eight finishes in a span of five starts from 1976-81 – including a runner-up by two strokes to Nicklaus at St. Andrews in 1978.

The PGA Championship was the graveyard for the career-slam hopes of titans Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson and has so far eluded young Jordan Spieth.

Palmer – whose charisma and promotional prowess created the concept of the professional Grand Slam in 1960 when he actively sought it by making his first Open Championship start after winning the Masters and U.S. Open – could never master what was then the final leg of the major season. He finished top-20 in the PGA 13 times, including runner-up three times in 1964, ’68 and ’70. His most spirited opportunity came in 1964 in Columbus, Ohio, when despite his “superb” play all week he couldn’t catch a wildly scrambling Bobby Nichols, who broke from a tie at the final turn with Palmer by draining putts of 35, 18, 15 and 51 feet on the back to win by three.

Watson had his own PGA demons. He could have notched it before it ever became his missing major piece in 1978, when he led each of the first three rounds and held a five-shot lead through 54 holes at 10-under with three rounds in the 60s on vaunted Oakmont. But Watson faltered with a 73 on Sunday, allowing John Mahaffey (66) and Jerry Pate (68) to reel him in and force a playoff. Mahaffey won his only major with a birdie on the second playoff hole. Watson’s next best PGA finish came 15 years later when he finished fifth at Inverness after starting the final round one shot off the lead.

The USGA, always a masochistic lot, fittingly delivered the most poignant misery to the two men who so desperately wanted to win its Open – Sam Snead and Mickelson. Snead is tied with Woods as the winningest players in PGA Tour history with 82 victories, but that missing U.S. Open trophy dogged his legitimate case against rival Hogan. Four times Snead finished runner-up in the U.S. Open, including his first try at it in 1937. He missed a 30-inch putt at the end of an 18-hole playoff to Lew Worsham in 1947. All he needed was a pair of pars in 1949, but he three-putted from the fringe on the penultimate hole at Medinah and lost by one. In 1953, he was a distant runner-up to Hogan. He played it 31 times to no avail, with 12 top 10s.

Phil Mickelson from the trap on the 13th hole during practice prior to the US Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California. 
Phil Mickelson from the trap on the 13th hole during practice prior to the US Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California. 

Mickelson’s extraordinary misery has played out before the eyes of modern golf fans. Most golf writers have it memorized if not attached to a save string for annual recall this time of year.

Other than in 2002 at Bethpage, when Mickelson never really threatened Woods on Sunday before finishing three strokes back, there was a late moment when it seemed all but certain that he would win.

In 1999 at Pinehurst, despite carrying a beeper that might have summoned him home for the birth of his first child at any moment, Mickelson led by one with three holes to play before Payne Stewart sank him with three consecutive one-putts.

In 2004 at Shinnecock, Mickelson birdied three of four holes to take a one-shot lead with two to play on Retief Goosen before making a double bogey from a rock-impeded lie in the bunker on the par-3 17th hole.

In 2006 at Winged Foot, despite fighting his control, he held a one-shot lead on the 18th tee before hitting a tent, a tree and a bunker en route to a shocking double bogey that left the trophy to Geoff Ogilvy while he called himself “an idiot.” In 2009 at Bethpage, with his wife’s recent breast cancer surgery on his mind, he held the lead again late in the final round after making eagle on No. 13 only to make bogeys at 15 and 17 to finish two behind Lucas Glover.

Then in 2013 at Merion, despite commuting across the country to his oldest daughter’s middle- school graduation, he vaulted into a share of the lead again Sunday with a chip-in eagle on No. 10 before derailing himself with a bogey on the short par-3 13th en route to another numbing runner-up to Justin Rose.

“I use the disappointments as a learning experience,” Mickelson has repeatedly said.

He’s learned one very crucial thing in 29 years of studying it: “When you try to go out and win a U.S. Open, you will lose it quick.” Maybe No. 30 at age 51 in his hometown will be Lefty’s lucky charm. After all, he’s on a roll.

“When it all comes together at a perfect time like that (at the PGA) was exciting,” he said. “I feel like, or I'm hopeful, that some of the things that I had learned heading in will carry over and give me some more opportunities this summer, because I feel like I'm playing some good golf.”

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