2002: Mickelson: ‘I do believe I am closer’

Farmingdale, N.Y.

The final round of the U.S. Open started well for Phil Mickelson when the crowd at the first tee sang “Happy Birthday” as he prepared to tee off. And there were times Sunday afternoon when the 32-year-old looked as if he actually might challenge a seemingly out-of-sync Tiger Woods, who bogeyed the first two holes.

It certainly appeared that Mickelson was the People’s Choice at the People’s Open, where spectators loudly cheered his every move. On the practice range. On the putting green. On the course.

“They gave me one of the most exciting days I ever had in golf,” he said after his round. “It was electrifying.”

At one point, after Mickelson carded his fourth birdie of the day, on the par-5 13th, he was only two shots back of Woods.

But the people could not give Mickelson his first major. Woods quickly recovered from his ragged start, and though he posted only two birdies all day, he would not let the birthday boy get any closer.

“I thought that Tiger might be catchable, and I knew I was within striking distance after I birdied 11 and 13,” Mickelson said. “I felt I was closing the gap.”

That gap, however, became insurmountable after Mickelson pushed his drive into the rough on 16, then knocked his approach shot into a greenside bunker. He went on to bogey that hole and the 17th finishing with an even-par 70 and an even-par 280 for the championship, three shots behind Woods. Once again, Woods had himself another major, the golf world was talking Grand Slam and Mickelson was left to explain how and why he had come up short.

It is an explanation that surely must be tiresome for Mickelson, who is ranked No. 2 in the world and has finished second, third and second in the last three majors.

Consider that Bethpage was the fourth time he had started the back nine of a U.S. Open within four shots of the lead. Or his 0-for-36 record in majors as a professional (0 for 40 if you toss in the four majors he played as an amateur). Seven times he has finished in the top three at a major, including four times in the last 14 months.

But Mickelson refuses to let any of that bother him. Yes, he is disappointed he has not been able to close the deal. Of course, he is tired of being a bridesmaid. Yet he still finds comfort in all he has accomplished.

“I played very well all week,” he said. “And I feel it will eventually happen. The more I give myself those chances to win, the more likely it is going to happen.”

“It,” of course, is winning a major.

“I played as hard as I could,” Mickelson said. “I competed for four rounds and played the last 30 holes in something like 5 under to get back into it. I love and cherish having the chance to win. And I feel I am playing well.”

As a player, Mickelson believes he is getting better and better.

“I am steadily improving my game,” he said. “And while it is difficult to compete with a player of Tiger’s abilities, I do believe I am closer.”











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