2018 U.S. Open: Age-old question looms for Lefty at Shinnecock Hills

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MARCH 04: Phil Mickelson gives a thumb up to fans on the 17th tee during the final round of World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship at Club De Golf Chapultepec on March 4, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

2018 U.S. Open: Age-old question looms for Lefty at Shinnecock Hills

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2018 U.S. Open: Age-old question looms for Lefty at Shinnecock Hills

The annals of sport are littered with legends who came up shy of a coveted prize. Dan Marino took the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs 10 times but never slipped on a Super Bowl ring.

Ernie Banks played 2,528 games for the Chicago Cubs but none in the postseason. Karl Malone made the playoffs every year of his NBA career, but a championship remained elusive. Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam singles titles but went 0-for-lifetime in Paris.

High achievers all, to be sure, but with résumés remembered more for a single omission than for the many accomplishments. It’s a list that no athlete wants to be part of when they call it a career.

Three golfers entered 2018 with an opportunity to join the game’s most elite club by completing the career Grand Slam. Rory McIlroy (Masters) and Jordan Spieth (PGA Championship) have youth on their side in their respective quests. But Phil Mickelson enjoys no such luxury.

He arrives at Shinnecock Hills this month for a 27th tilt at the U.S. Open, with both Mickelson and his legion of fans wondering if this is finally the year that Ahab spears that damn whale.

Mickelson has made no secret of his yearning to fill the only space in his major trophy cabinet.

“I could BS you and tell you I don’t think about it. I think about it all the time,” he said during the last U.S. Open he played, in 2016. “This is the tournament I want to win the most to complete the four majors. Until I ultimately win this tournament, it will be my biggest thought, my biggest focus. Because I view those players that have won the four majors totally different than I view all the others.”

Winning the major that ends on Father’s Day would be very much on brand for someone who has assiduously marketed himself as a family man since 1999. That year he was just hours from becoming a father when he logged his first runner-up finish at the Open, to Payne Stewart, himself just months from dying in a plane crash.

By the time his first-born graduated high school last summer – Mickelson skipped the Open at Erin Hills to attend the ceremony, causing some fans on social media to unsuccessfully lobby the school to reschedule the event – he had accumulated five more second-place finishes but no trophy.

To add an additional layer of poignancy to the pursuit, Mickelson’s birthday falls around the Open every year, an unnecessary reminder that his hourglass is ever closer to dropping those last few grains of sand. He turns 48 on June 16. That coincides with the third round of the 118th Open. Of the previous 117 Opens contested, exactly zero have been won by a man of Mickelson’s age. But that doesn’t guarantee disappointment at Shinnecock Hills, according to one man who knows a little something about winning the toughest major of them all.

“He might be as good a 47-year-old that has ever played in the U.S. Open, including Jack and Arnie,” said Curtis Strange, a two-time champion. “Father Time is an issue. But he still hits it and he still has the short game.”

Strange isn’t alone in his optimism that Mickelson can contend at Shinnecock Hills.

“I certainly think the way he has played this year gives him a chance,” said Claude Harmon III, who has coached the last two winners, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.

At the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, Mickelson ended a five-year victory drought that reached back to his 2013 British Open title, which he considers his “career-defining achievement.” That was the major he was thought least likely to win, but that stunning victory at Muirfield gave him three legs of the career slam. It also cast in starker relief his struggles at the U.S. Open, where just a few weeks earlier at Merion he had notched his record sixth runner-up finish.

“Number six hurt him pretty badly, but to go and win the Open really softened the blow a bit,” said Justin Rose, who handed him that painful loss. Mickelson has competed in three U.S. Opens since it became his only missing major but hasn’t finished within 15 shots of the winner in any.

But that’s not a statistic likely to discomfit his fans.

How could he not contend at Shinnecock Hills? After all, that’s where he earned his third runner-up finish (2004, Retief Goosen) and challenged as a relative youngster 23 years ago when Corey Pavin won.

And therein lies another layer of expectation particular to Mickelson. He has contended so often and for so long that almost every venue offers straws at which ardent supporters can clutch, allowing them to see his past performances as a guarantee of future success.

If he falls short again at Shinnecock, there’s next year at Pebble Beach, where he has won the AT&T National Pro-Am four times (his three Opens there: MC, T-16, T-4). Beyond that, there’s 2020 at Winged Foot, where he blundered into runner-up No. 4  in 2006, to Geoff Ogilvy. Or ’21 at Torrey Pines, where he has won the Farmers Insurance Open three times.

It’s the kind of fanciful thinking that values sentimentality over sense, but good memories at the course don’t hurt, Strange insisted.

“It certainly helps the attitude for the week if you’ve done well there in the past,” he said.

“Phil has plenty of room off the tee, OK? The course is going to be long enough where they’re going to have to hit a lot of drivers. Any guy like Phil, the big launchers of the ball, they have to have a decent week driving the golf ball. But he’s proven many times that he can contend in the U.S. Open even though he’s not hitting 75 percent of the fairways. He’s played well this year. How can you not say he has some kind of chance?”

2018 U.S. Open: Age-old question looms for Lefty at Shinnecock Hills

Trouble has had no problem finding Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open, like it did here in 2011. (Getty Images)

Strange was known for clinically plotting his way around the perils of an Open, and he believes that traditionally severe course setups often penalize audacious play.

“Arnold comes to mind, and Phil. Arnold could have won many more than just one U.S. Open. At Olympic [in 1966] he kept hitting driver into the rough,” Strange said. “If you’re going well you can play that way and win. But you have to be going well. When it goes sideways a little bit, then you have to be patient enough to back off. And those kind of players, that’s not in their game plan. That’s just how they play.”

But Strange doesn’t believe there’s a simple explanation for Mickelson’s failures in the national open.

“Sometimes it’s just bad luck, sometimes its poor play. It happens,” he said.

“The U.S. Open tests your entire package, from day one to Sunday afternoon.”

Mickelson doesn’t shy away from discussing the empty shelf space in his trophy room, no more than he did during the first dozen years of his professional career when facing ceaseless questions about going winless in 42 majors before breaking through.

“There is nothing that would mean more to me than to cap off my career with a win here at the U.S. Open,” he said in 2016. “Something that I’ve come close six times and that I’ve played well in the past but never have had that elusive win. It’s my national open. It would mean the world to me.”

When the U.S. Open returned to Shinnecock Hills in 1986 after a 90-year absence, it was an aging gunslinger considered long past his prime who was the last man standing.

Raymond Floyd was a flinty competitor in his 40s, unwilling to exit stage right and determined to school his younger rivals when he won his third (and last) leg of the career slam.

More than three decades later, Shinnecock Hills may allow another graying veteran to author a dream closing chapter to a storied career.

Or it may simply offer a raw reminder of how each passing year robs even the most hungry and indomitable legends of a step.

And in the U.S. Open, one step makes all the difference. Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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