2006: The spite of a New York minute

This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Not for Phil Mickelson, the Big Apple himself, the fan favorite, the man who spent so much time around Winged Foot and Westchester County these last two months that he all but had Yankees box seats and former mayor Rudy Giuliani on speed dial.

Sunday at Winged Foot West promised to be a blissful coronation, not a somber affair. It was all set up so perfectly: Phil’s course, with Phil’s frenzied fans lined from tee to green. Phil’s tournament. Phil’s time.

Well, better table that Bobby Jones-like ticker tape celebration down Broadway, because the last scene didn’t finish the way Mickelson mapped it out. Needing a par to win the Open, Mickelson, in a portrait reminiscent of his old swashbuckling self, got too greedy at the last. He chose driver from the tee and cut-flailed it way left, toward the Champions’ Pavilion. He then caught a tree on a gambling second shot, and couldn’t even muster bogey to force a playoff.

He picked a hell of a time to make his first double bogey of the 106th U.S. Open, and the sting factor was significant. In a word, he and his entourage left the grounds numb, awash in blank faces of consummate disbelief.

“I just can’t believe I did that,” Mickelson would say more than once.

Just like that, in the time it takes to lose a risky cut shot into some tree limbs, Lefty’s Excellent Adventure screeched to a hasty halt. Gone was a third consecutive major and the potential for a MickelSlam. Gone was the second leg of a calendar slam and the third leg of a career slam. Gone was 4-for-10. It all fluttered away like a butterfly in a 30 mph gust. Cooled, for now, was the Tiger-Phil debate, and the chance for Phil to join Woods and Nicklaus as the only players since 1972 to win the first two majors of the season.

It was all right there for the taking. And gone in a whisk. Poof.

History was, well, history. With one par, things could have, would have been so, so different.

“I’m in shock,” said Lefty’s swing coach, Rick Smith. “Total shock. I’m at a loss for words.”

Added short-game instructor Dave Pelz, “When you’re not hitting it in the fairway, sometimes you have to cut your losses and do something else to play from the fairway, and he didn’t do it. I hope next time he will. It’s disappointing . . . He had a chance to make history and he had it within his grasp and let it slip away.”

Mickelson summed it up thusly: “I am such an idiot.”

Perhaps that’s a bit severe. But somewhere down the stretch Sunday, Mickelson reverted to his old ways.

Many players used 3-woods on the 450-yard closing hole, but Mickelson went with driver. With the hole playing into the wind, Mickelson said had he hit 4-wood (his 3-wood was shelved for the week for a 3-iron) and missed the fairway, he’d have been left with too long a shot into the green. So he hit driver and missed the fairway for the 12th time in 14 tries in the final round. (That said, it was amazing he went 17 holes only 2 over.) With gnarly, thick rough gobbling up errant tee balls, it was an accident waiting to happen.

“The driver just totally let him go,” said Smith. “The last hole, even a hook 4-wood or something down there would have worked. Par to win. Man. . . . He can drive it in that fairway all day. I don’t know. It just wasn’t there.”

So Mickelson settled for his fourth runner-up finish at the Open, adding to second-place efforts at Pinehurst (1999), Bethpage (2002) and Shinnecock (2004).

Winged Foot was going to be different than the others. Having visited 10 times before tournament week even arrived, he knew the course better than anyone other than four-time club champion Andrew Svoboda.

U.S. Golf Association president Walter Driver proposed that a good Open test would examine the players’ “character, their perseverance and their sense of humor.” Winged Foot did all of that. Making them drive the ball into tiny slivers of green ribbon that pass as fairways can do funny things to the best players on the planet. On top of that, the USGA manages to pull off the biggest sandbagging ploy in golf, shaving eight strokes off par for the week by turning two par-5 holes (Nos. 9 and 17) into bulked-up par 4s.

There was a certain Van de Veldian feel to the end, what with so many collapses.

Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie . . . each took turns stumbling. Winner Geoff Ogilvy might have staggered as well had he not holed an improbable chip for par at the penultimate hole.

“The winner does do the things right at the end of the day, but he’s only a hair’s breadth from being like the other guys,” said Harrington.

Golf could have been poised for an electric gathering at Hoylake in a month’s time, but now Mickelson must start from scratch again. He stood upstairs in Winged Foot’s antiquated and storied locker room, still not wanting to believe what had just transpired as he solemnly cleaned out locker No. 531.

Around the corner, on a maple wall, hung a picture of 1997 PGA champion Davis Love standing under his rainbow. A few feet away, a picture of Fuzzy Zoeller, grinning en route to the 1984 U.S. Open title. Mickelson was expecting to be part of that rich Winged Foot lore, his picture one day hanging, too. It wasn’t to be.

“This one hurts more than any other tournament because I had it won,” he said. “I had it in my grasp and just let it go. This one is going to take a little while to get over.”

The runner-up at the U.S. Open receives a silver medal. Amy Mickelson was handed a box designed to house the medal, but it was empty. She was informed the medal would be shipped.

She turned to the USGA official, smiled and said, “I’d rather have the trophy instead.”

So would her hubby, who no doubt was bound for a sleepless night.

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