Babineau: Well, Lefty, there's always next year . . .

Phil Mickelson shot a 3-over 73 on Friday to virtually eliminate himself from winning his coveted first U.S. Open title.
Phil Mickelson shot a 3-over 73 on Friday to virtually eliminate himself from winning his coveted first U.S. Open title. ( Getty Images )

Friday, June 13, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. – The melodic bells from the Village Chapel, a stone’s throw from iconic Pinehurst No. 2, began to chime as Phil Mickelson stood over one final putt early Friday evening at the 114th U.S. Open. The sound was calming and angelic, but in actuality, hardly fitting the scene. On this particular day, the relationship between the big left-hander and his putter was anything but religious.

He tried one last stroke for par from 10 feet. And missed. Again.

As Martin Kaymer sprinted one way at this Open, setting a 36-hole record at 10-under 130, Mickelson headed in the opposite direction, posting a dismal 3-over 73 that pretty much removed him from any realistic chance to complete his career Grand Slam at the place that is so dear to his heart. In the past, Mickelson has called some of his close-call failures at the U.S. Open demoralizing. When he lost at Merion last summer, he didn't get out of bed for a couple of days. This one won't be close, but it could leave him numb for a while.

There have been times in Mickelson’s career – such as last summer’s Open Championship at Muirfield – when he’d stand on a green and the hole appeared to be as big as a bushel basket. At Pinehurst, that has not been the case.

“The hole looks like a thimble to me right now,” he said. “I'm having a hard time finding it.”

As for his chance to capture the one big title that has eluded him in a Hall of Fame career? Well, this week, he’s going to have a hard time finding that, too.

“I'm not overly optimistic,” Mickelson said late Friday, here at his 24th national championship. He finished an eerie Friday the 13th at 3-over 143. “Obviously I'm not in good position, but more than that, I'm just . . . you know, you can't fire at a lot of the pins. You got to make 25-, 30-footers, (and) I'm just not doing it.”

In truth, he’s not even making all of his 5-footers, either. Therein lies the incredible struggle within the tall, talented frame of one Philip Alfred Mickelson. Just as Kaymer is stuck on the number 65, so, too, is Lefty; that’s the number of putts Mickelson has required to hole out through 36 holes. On Friday, he needed 34 of 'em.

At this championship, he knows better than anyone that such a poor performance with the shortstick simply does not get the job done.

Rolling his ball on greens that were softened and slowed by overnight rains, Mickelson made the decision to revert to his conventional putting grip after experimenting with a claw grip in Round 1, and he broke out to a flawless start. Playing in the afternoon alongside defending U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, Mickelson poured in 8-footers at the second and third holes. Suddenly, the people’s choice was 2 under, and tied for second place. Despite one man’s runaway, this had potential for some drama.

But he would hit a rough patch soon after, failing to make birdie at the par-5 fifth – No. 2’s third easiest hole – and complicating matters by missing par putts inside 5 feet at No. 6 (which he three-putted a second consecutive day) and No. 8.

He slid back to level par, a whopping 10 shots behind Kaymer, and his spirits and energy clearly began to sink. Soon the poor putting would begin to trickle into the rest of his game.

“I feel like I'm playing well enough to win the U.S. Open,” he said, “except for putting . . . it's kind of the same story. After I've three-putted three or four times, I kind of lose my focus on the other stuff. It really affects my ability to concentrate, and my momentum and energy. It's a frustrating time, because I feel like the other parts of my game are there.”

Over his final nine, his powerful driving, which had been there a day earlier, left him, and he began to spray the ball all over the place. He missed fairways with his final five driver swings, and waded through more native area than a fifth-grader on a nature walk. His swagger departed, his shoulders slumped and it was difficult to watch him try to fight a battle that he simply was not winning.

Mickelson, who turns 44 next week, is a six-time U.S. Open runner-up, and known for possessing one of the game’s sharpest short games. No. 2 is a golf course with turtleback greens and sharp, sometimes treacherous runoffs, and where the short game is a premium. As much as a vocal partisan crowd tried to spur Mickelson on, it could not. When asked about playing as this week’s defending champion, Rose even joked that it was Mickelson, not him, who was treated as such.

There will be no trophy this week, though. When his putting is there, as with any player, “the game feels easy,” Mickelson said. “You don't put pressure on yourself to hit it close. You can hit more of the middle of the greens. Your ballstriking then becomes a lot easier. Your targets are a lot bigger.”

But over two days at Pinehurst, the magic has been absent. Claw. Conventional. Shoot, he might show up Saturday morning after borrowing Judge Smails’ Billy Baroo. Anything would be a welcomed change. Be assured he’ll keep on trying. Mickelson is not one to give up.

But that quest for the national championship that he so longs for, unfortunately, may ring like the chimes of that nearby chapel, sounding its own familiar refrain: There’s always next year.