2004: Beneath the smile, growing pains

Southampton, N.Y.

If you went 154-1 as, say, an NFL football coach, they’d build a wing for you at the Hall of Fame. Finish 154-1 at the U.S. Open and you get a nice little six-figure check to put the grandkids through college one day, a few hearty “attaboy” pats on the back and a gnawing, empty feeling deep inside that you just came up agonizingly short in yet another attempt to win your national championship.

That’s OK. Phil Mickelson, who was the Almost Man once again at a U.S. Open, still left the grounds at Shinnecock Hills beaming that 100,000-megawatt smile. And it will take more than a smarting two-shot loss to Retief Goosen and a crowbar to remove it.

Should Lefty decide to run on an independent ticket, we could be looking at a Mickelson White House come November. He has become that popular. The Can’t-Get-My-Phil campaign train whistle-stopped through Long Island last week, picking up steam like a Titleist running off the back of the slippery slope behind the seventh green at Shinnecock Hills.

At 34, the man who couldn’t win majors has solved the riddle, and two months after his Masters magic, he jumped right back into the fray at the U.S. Open, where, if you can’t hit it straight, the U.S. Golf Association will see to it you won’t see straight, either.

Amid the Coney Island carnival atmosphere of a golf course that got away, two true, deserving champions fought to the finish at a memorable Open. Mickelson, derailed by a final-day double bogey at the par-5 16th hole in 1995, the 70th hole of his tournament, departed the chase this time at the 71st hole, enduring a Phil Phlashback from yesteryear on the green at the par-3 17th, three-putting for

double from 6 slick feet.

At this pace, he’s going to have a putt that REALLY means something on the 72nd hole the next time the Open visits Shinnecock in, say, 2012 or so. By then, there actually should be live grass growing again on a few of the greens. And by then, it’s a safe bet Mickelson will have added a few more majors to his mantel.

In mere months, the Mickelson makeover has been nothing short of astounding. He went from a lost (and winless) puppy at the Presidents Cup in South Africa last November to a man who has emerged as the No. 1 force in major golf, as evidenced by his 1-2 quinella ticket at Augusta National and Shinnecock, two of the grandest dames in the land.

And now that the artist formerly known as the Best Player Never To Win a Major has shed that burdensome, weighty tag, he’s eager to make sure the green jacket he picked up symbolizes a stepping stone, not a singular high point in his career.

Tiger Woods tells us that finishing second sucks, but you’d never hear that out of PG-13 Phil. Oh, heavens no. Mild-mannered Tom Lehman, who dunked an approach at the 71st hole to lose a U.S. Open a few years back, said afterward at Congressional he felt like punching somebody in the gut. Phil took out his frustrations by signing autographs until his hand cramped.

The dawn of his emergence as the people’s choice happened right here in Long Island, at Bethpage Black, two years ago, and New York welcomed him with open arms once again, embracing Mickelson like a son. They lined the ropes from green to tee loudly shouting encouragement in a fevered, frenzied manner we haven’t witnessed since Palmer was hitching his pants in his prime.

When Mickelson dropped from the lead at 17 on Sunday, the sheer shock was palpable in the thick sea air. It was as if everybody wanted to punch somebody in the gut. Fred Funk, playing alongside Lefty, felt so badly on the next hole that he had to step away from his tee shot to clear his head. “It’s a downer,” said Funk of Phil’s funk.

Shame, but when Goosen – who played as spectacularly as Mickelson in shooting 71, almost eight shots below the day’s average score of 78.7 – struck his approach to the back of the 18th green and made his triumphant walk, the applause was so muffled you’d have thought the crowd was wearing mittens.

Nothing against Goose, but he wasn’t their man.

What does Phil think of the adulation? “Very flattering,” he says.

All of a sudden, the golfer who couldn’t shoot straight at golf’s Big Four can’t miss. When an entire field was swept off the leaderboard Sunday in a sea of bogeys, doubles and others, Phil was recreating his final nine at Augusta, reeling off – are you sitting down? – three birdies. Real, live birdies. At a

U.S. Open. (Pssst. Please don’t tell the USGA.)

Had he made par at 17, who knows what Goosen would have made? Phil Mickelson, Mr. 0-for-46, was nearly halfway to the Slam. He’s gone from chasing ghosts to chasing history.

“It was exciting,” said Mickelson’s longtime agent, Steve Loy, who’s known Lefty since he recruited him to play at Arizona State. “He was ready. He’s been ready for this ever since he won at Augusta. This has been all he’s prepared for. And the way he’s playing, he’s going to be ready at the British (Open). We all know that is the hardest place for Phil to go play and win. But he’s got shots in the bag now that he’s hitting in the wind that he hasn’t attempted to play. He’ll be ready.”

First he’ll have to get past the heartache of losing a close one at Shinnecock, which won’t be easy. Three times he has been right there – at Pinehurst in 1999, at Bethpage two years ago, at Shinnecock last weekend – and all three times he has watched somebody else kiss the trophy and make the speech he wants so dearly to make on the 18th green.

“You know, I don’t know what to say,” Mickelson said. “I had an incredible experience at Augusta, and just as thrilling as that was, it’s that disappointing to come so close in such a big event . . . Being second now three times . . . it’s disappointing.”

No doubt he pushed his agony aside in time to celebrate oldest daughter Amanda’s fifth birthday Monday at home in California.

She’s growing so fast. Just like her dad.

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