Phil Mickelson was no newcomer to Hazeltine National Golf Club, having played there as an amateur at the 1991 U.S. Open, where he made the cut and played all four rounds.
At the time, the Arizona State phenom already was being touted as the next Nicklaus, a power player with better touch than Jack around the greens. He even won a PGA Tour event before turning professional, and certainly an incandescent pro career would follow.
Even Mickelson confidently believed that it was only a matter of time before he began collecting trophies at golf’s four majors.
More than a decade later, he still is searching for his first. Twenty-eight different players have won majors since 1992, but Mickelson is not among them. Sure, he has won 21 PGA Tour titles, but Mickelson, now 32, arrived at the 84th PGA Championship hoping to fill the major void in his otherwise impressive career. For three days, culminating in a third-round 78, his lackluster play almost rendered him speechless.
This time, unlike a year ago at Atlanta Athletic Club, where Mickelson battled David Toms to the 72nd hole of the PGA, or this year’s Masters and U.S. Open, where he entered the final round with a shot at victory, there was absolutely no suspense in the chase.
As the suspended second round wrapped up early Aug. 17, Mickelson, who opened with 76, was putting out for double bogey and making the cut on the number (4-over 148). He spent the rest of the weekend as a virtual bystander, just another player filling the field, miles out of contention.
“I’m just not playing well,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. There is no one to blame other than myself.”
A final-round 68 was his best round of the week, but it was far too little, far too late.
Mickelson finished second to Woods at the U.S. Open at Bethpage and won in Hartford the following week, but has struggled since.
He shot a pair of 76s in the middle two rounds of the British Open (where he tied for 66th), and said he developed some bad swing habits in the high Muirfield winds. He missed the cut at The International, an event in which he usually dominates, and tied for 29th at the Buick Open in Michigan while trying to work out his swing kinks with instructor Rick Smith.
Not until Sunday at Hazeltine did everything feel just right with his swing. Afterward, Mickelson said he may not play much the remainder of the year after the two World Golf Championships events and the Ryder Cup.
Before the PGA Championship began, Mickelson was asked if he were tired of answering questions about never having won a major.
“Well, there’s a very simple resolution,” he said. “If I get tired of it, I know how to fix it, and I’m trying to resolve that.”
At Hazeltine, Mickelson’s major resume as a pro slipped to 0-39 – and 0-43 overall. A third child awaits him and his wife, Amy, in 2003. Does a major await? Ever?
He won’t know for at least eight months.
None of us will. The clock keeps ticking.