Klein: U.S. Open finale lacks storybook ending

Phil Mickelson during the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

Phil Mickelson during the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

Sometimes, it’s just too much to ask for a storybook ending. Maybe it’s just too good to be true, like Greg Norman leading the Open Championship at Birkdale in 2008 on Sunday at the start; or Tom Watson a short-iron par away from capturing the Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009. And yet here we were, on Fathers Day 2013, with Phil Mickelson celebrating his 43rd birthday, and having shot 67 in round one after pulling an all-nighter on a red-eye flight returning from his daughter’s graduation. All Phil had to do was control a couple of wedges on the back nine. Instead, he’s become golf’s tragic hero: six times a runner-up in the tournament you most want to win as an American. And he had no one to blame but himself.

The week started with all sorts of speculation about how easy Merion would be. Nobody among the many channels of talking heads seemed to deviate from the standard line of punditry, that if it remained wet all week the short, quirky course on Ardmore Avenue would yield low scores.

Midway through the front nine Sunday, it was obvious that not only was Merion holding up – we knew that by Friday morning – but that some kind of wacky karma was at work out there. It looked more like “The Twilight Zone” than a rerun of “The Philadelphia Story.” One player was dressed in octopi pants; another KO’d a volunteer scorer, only to strip down to his bare leg on the very next hole to play out of a water hazard. The steadiest by reputation (Steve Stricker) among all the front runners compounded an OB drive with a dead shank that became the first such shot at a major shown on Pro Tracer. And Tiger Woods, the odds-on pick to win before the bell rang, zombie strolled all weekend to a smooth 150.

Thank goodness TV has not adopted smell-o-vision to enhance a viewer’s experience. The tight, heavily overloaded Merion site reeked all week like a landfill mosh pit. Between the ropes, the course held up amazingly well, no small thanks to a maintenance regimen by Matt Shaffer that’s low on fertilizer and strong on drainage and dry, healthy turf. So what we saw was elegant and classic, even as it caused the players headaches while they second-guessed their lines of play and putting speeds.

Maybe the PGA Tour could take a lesson or two away from this event. It’s good to see the world’s best players struggle. It’s great to watch them be inventive and disciplined. And it’s fine that luck plays no small role in the outcome. On a sports landscape filled with too many events and too many sports – this weekend, golf went up against the regular Major League Baseball schedule as well as championship finals in both hockey and basketball – the game’s character was evident in a dramatic way. Personally, I much prefer Mickelson's vertical leap of 4 inches (when he eagled the 10th) to anything LeBron James can muster for the Miami Heat.

Good for Justin Rose, a deserving winner who simply outplayed the field over the last few holes. There’s no need to mistake Mickelson’s fate for tragedy. It’s amazing to watch him come so close (again) and yet to find yet another way not to win. He didn’t exactly lose this thing, however. We just never quite got to the ending his story deserves.

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