2006: Comedy of errors

Last time professional golf went this cuckoo, Jean Van de Velde had his shoes and socks off in a Scottish creekbed. Only this time a bit more was at stake than an obscure Frenchman chasing a silver jug. This time Phil Mickelson had his hands around golf history, around his third consecutive major, around four of 10. He had control of golf, the sheriff’s badge, in his left hand. He had people talking about Hoylake, England, the Lefty Slam and golf’s new dominant player. He had the game buzzing, he had Tiger Woods in the shadows, he had it all. He had it all but one last par.

This is the way you dream it up as a kid. All that glory and a two-shot lead in the U.S. Open with three holes left. Then Mickelson hiccups at 16 and his closest rivals hole out from long range at 17, but still he’s in control. He’s still one stroke up with one hole left even though he can’t seem to find the fairway with a tour guide.

History is why he came to Winged Foot so early and often to prepare. He probably played more golf there than most members this spring. He came so frequently – 10 times before Open week – they probably should have charged him monthly dues and a food minimum. He came to plot strategy, take more notes than an English Lit major and leave nothing to chance.

But here’s what he didn’t plan on. He didn’t plan on his driving leaving him in a world of bother, on his “bread-and-butter carve slice” abandoning him at the worst time. He didn’t fathom hitting only two of 14 fairways on Open Sunday and turning into the old, wild Phil. And he didn’t imagine living such a nightmare on that dogleg-left 18th, the course’s hardest hole. Instead of a rainbow, there was a dark cloud over that green. Late in the final round, those final 450 yards produced what an icy interstate highway can: one wreck after another.

None, of course, was as gory as Mickelson’s crash in the final twosome. He hit a tent, a tree, a bunker and greenside rough. He hit everything but the fairway and a putt that mattered. He didn’t get his ball on the green until his fifth shot. A man does all that with all those ramifications on the line, makes double bogey and loses by one, and he just might want to hit the bottle.

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

So it was that Phil Mickelson blew the Open in spectacular fashion. It was a Category 5 blast, a Steve Wynn-blows-up-the-Dunes type of explosion that started with a flare-slice drive so far left it hit a huge tent called, ironically, the Champions’ Pavilion. Mickelson got a break because his ball came to rest on trampled-down grass, but rather than play safely back to the fairway, he took a risky line from 201 yards out and tried to slice a 3-iron shot and get it on or near the green in pursuit of par and outright victory. This was like the old go-for-broke gambling Phil. This was perhaps the most questionable shot selection since Van de Velde’s second on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open.

“I just thought, ‘I can slice this,’ ” Mickelson said.

Problem was, he overcut the shot. The ball hit a tree and bounced back toward him some 30 yards, still leaving him 185 out.

“It was a nightmare hitting the tree,” said Mickelson’s swing coach, Rich Smith. “It was like getting struck by lightning.”

Mickelson then would go high and find the left greenside bunker and a fried-egg lie. He blasted past the right-side pin and into rough on the other side. When he missed his chip, when he doubled the diabolical closing hole just as Colin Montgomerie had minutes earlier in equally stunning fashion, Mickelson was glassy-eyed and in shock. He and Montgomerie, two gifted players who for years had come so painfully close to major victory, would end up one hurtful stroke behind a happy beneficiary named Geoff Ogilvy.

This trophy was all about lost and found.

“This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won,” said Mickelson, an Open runner-up for the fourth time. “It hurts because I had it in my grasp and just let it go. . . . The biggest reason this is so disappointing is that this is a tournament I dreamt of winning as a kid.

I spent countless hours practicing, dreaming of winning this tournament, and 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.”

If the 1974 Open was the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot, then what was this? Massacre II? Winged Foot won handily again. Seven over par won then, 5 over this time. Many leaders spent the last nine in rapid rewind.

“You wonder sometimes why you put yourself through this,” Montgomerie said.

“Surreal,” Ogilvy called the 11th-hour drama. “It’s pretty hard to believe.”

The deep rough, the undulating greens and the narrow fairways served up what countless players called the hardest Open test they’ve ever seen. The grass was so high, word was 5-foot-1 Tadd Fujikawa, 15, almost got lost in it. Him, not his ball.

“It’s quite numbing in a way because there’s so much carnage on the course,” said Dale Lynch, Ogilvy’s longtime instructor.

Among the victims was a rusty Tiger Woods, whose father died May 3. Woods missed the cut with a pair of 76s in his first tournament since the Masters. He missed after playing weekends in 39 consecutive majors, tying Jack Nicklaus’ best. And Mickelson missed becoming only the third man to win three majors in a row because he closed with his lone double bogey of the week.

“It was . . . kind of a comedy of errors on the last,” said 54-hole co-leader Kenneth Ferrie of England.

Not for Ogilvy. The 29-year-old Australian, a five-tool player perhaps on the verge of stardom, scrambled for par after his 9-iron from the back end of a sandy divot hole in the fairway spun back off the green, some 30 yards shy of the pin. He recovered by pitching to 6 feet and converting, thinking the par might get him into a playoff.

That was vintage Ogilvy. Now that he has tamed his temper over the last couple of years, Ogilvy’s game is without much weakness. He’s a short-game wizard who also happens to be powerful off the tee. The Open is a grinder’s workplace, and Ogilvy was third in scrambling at 60 percent. He also ranked in the top 10 in driving distance and putting, a Nicklausian combination.

“He’s a typical Australian – he has a lot of fight in him,” said Alistair Matheson, his caddie of seven years.

Ogilvie showed off his brilliant wedge game on the last six holes, hitting a pin from a short-side bunker at 13, chipping in for par from 25 feet at 17 and then saving par and a trophy at the last.

“Yeah, wow, chipped it in,” Ogilvy said of a shot that might have gone 8 feet past had it not hit the pin. “(It was) a shot you wait your whole life to chip in in a situation like that.”

The seed was planted by Matheson. Before the shot, the caddie told him, “Just chip it in. Why don’t you just chip it in?”

One putt on the last two holes usually works at an Open. What’s more, Ogilvy’s combination of power and finesse enabled him to avoid making a double bogey all week. And he played the eight par 5s in 2 under for the week, whereas Mickelson played them 2 over.

“The sky’s the limit for him now,” fellow young Aussie Adam Scott said.

Ogilvy is the first Australian to win the Open since David Graham at Merion in 1981 and the first to win a major since Steve Elkington beat Montgomerie in a playoff at the 1995 PGA. Ogilvie’s 71-70-72-72–285 is the first over-par winning score since Andy North shot the same total at Cherry Hills in 1978. He’s the first winner without a score in the 60s since Tom Kite in 1992 at Pebble Beach. And he’s the fifth winner in six years to shoot over par in the last round.

“He was the last man standing, really,” said Montgomerie, at 42 running out of time to break through with a major victory.

Ogilvy is nothing if not rising. He’s on a fast track toward big stuff, and has been for two years. He won in Tucson last year. He tied for fifth at the British Open and tied for sixth at the PGA last year. He won this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play after repeatedly rallying from behind. Then he tied for 16th in his first Masters. All of which raised his confidence.

“I just like playing majors,” he said. “But to be honest, this is the last one I would have thought I was going to win because I don’t drive it very straight. But I’ve always been decent grinding it out when par has been a good score. If you really set your mind to it and have the right attitude, it can be quite enjoyable.”

As a kid, Ogilvy got the autographs of several top golfers, including Tom Watson and Greg Norman. Not that he’s in awe of regal names, for his ancestors include Sir Angus Ogilvy, part of Britain’s Royal Family, and Scotland’s King of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce. That said, England’s final-round hopes in this Open rested on a guy dressed in hot pink (Ian Poulter) and a Ferrie.

Then there was Montgomerie, the emotional Scot, so close so often but winless in majors. It looked like this might be his week when he holed a 50-foot birdie putt at 17 after driving into trees right. Mickelson was making bogey on No. 16 from a plugged lie near a bunker lip, and the sudden two-shot swing knotted them.

Montgomerie, though, doubled 18 from 172 yards out on the right side of the fairway. The right pin set up perfectly for the fader. But Monty switched from a 6-iron to a 7-iron and made an unforced error, hitting a horrible shot a bit heavy and coming up short and right of the pin in high grass. He pitched 30 feet past and then three-putted, missing an 8-foot comebacker.

“It was a poor shot, no question about that,” said Montgomerie, runner-up for the third time in an Open and the fifth time in a major. “I put myself into a poor position.”

The same could have been said of Woods a couple of days earlier. He had trouble calibrating green speeds and bogeyed the first three holes en route to 152, his highest 36-hole total in a major. He hit only 25 percent of fairways over two days, compared with 73 percent when he won the Open at Pebble in 2000. His misses went both right and left.

“It’s like taking nine weeks off and jumping into the NBA Finals,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ swing coach. “Tiger admitted (after Round 1) that maybe he wasn’t ready to get back. Nine weeks off is a long time, especially when coming to a course this hard.”

There was a lot of (ital) hard (end ital) at Winged Foot. Hard track. Hard fairways and greens. Hard to keep running drives on the fairway. Hard fall that was hard to take for Mickelson and his camp.

“I’m in shock,” said Smith. “I’m in total shock.”

The instructor wasn’t alone. Disbelief hung over Winged Foot. And no one was more bummed than a certain lefthander.

“It really stings,” Mickelson said. “This is going to take a little while to get over.”

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