Take the movie “Titanic,” multiply it by the book “The Fault In Our Stars” and any three Morrissey records, and you’ll start to get an idea of the heartbreak the U.S. Open has brought Phil Mickelson.
Sure, he’s one of the greatest golfers in history, already a deserving Hall of Famer. But the U.S. Open has bedeviled Mickelson for a decade and a half. It’s not just that Mickelson loses; every golfer suffers that dozens of times a year. It’s the many ways he’s lost, sometimes by self-inflicted injury, sometimes by fate. He’s driven to the course on Sunday and held the lead; he’s stood on the 18th tee within sight of the final cup and held the lead.
Steel your heart and join us as we journey through Mickelson’s six second-place finishes. This is going to hurt.
1999: Pinehurst No. 2
Phil lost to: Payne Stewart
Story: If you’re going to lose, you may as well lose to a deserving winner. Mickelson was playing with a beeper (remember those?) in his bag in the event his wife Amy went into labor with their first child. He entered the day a stroke behind Stewart, but managed to gain the lead by a stroke after 15. A two-stroke swing on 16 left Mickelson one down, and Stewart would seal the win two holes later with a memorable putt and air-punch. Stewart immediately grasped Mickelson’s face and told him what a great father he’d be. A few months later, Stewart died in a plane crash.
Here's a look at the final holes:
2002: Bethpage Black
Phil lost to: Tiger Woods
Story: Losing to Woods in the early 2000s was like betting against the sunrise. Mickelson began Sunday five strokes behind Woods and never got closer than two strokes. It’s worth noting that Mickelson, to this point, hadn’t won a major yet. But the connection he made with the Bethpage galleries would serve him well a few years down the line.
Here, with some foreign announcing, is a sweet shot from Bethpage:
2004: Shinnecock Hills
Phil lost to: Retief Goosen
Story: This one’s still cringeworthy. Mickelson had a one-stroke lead after 70 holes, but the U.S. Open is 72. A three-putt from inside five feet on 17 destroyed his chances, and Goosen went on to win by two strokes.
Try not to cringe at the background music of this recap:
2006: Winged Foot
Phil lost to: Geoff Ogilvy
Story: If Shinnecock gut-punched Phil, Winged Foot fed his heart into a wood chipper. Mickelson stood on the 18th tee with a one-stroke lead and proceeded to fire his tee shot off a hospitality tent. He compounded his error with a meltdown not seen in golf since Jean van de Velde rolled up his pant legs as he gave away the British Open. Worst of all? Phil lost by a stroke even making a double bogey.
Here's the entire 18th hole, if you can stomach it:
2009: Bethpage Black, Part II
Phil lost to: Lucas Glover
Story: Phil’s at his best when the pressure on him is the least. He specializes in coming from out of nowhere to surprise people … and, similarly, tends to stumble over his putter when he’s the acknowledged favorite. (See: the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Mickelson’s home course.) This time at Bethpage, Mickelson started the final day six strokes off the lead. But by the 13th, he had a share of the leaderboard’s top spot. Late bogeys destroyed his hopes and he had to watch Glover sweep in from even farther out in the distance and grab the trophy.
Here's a recap of what Phil was facing at the time:
Phil lost to: Justin Rose
Story: When you’re Phil Mickelson, you can fly back and forth across the country to watch your daughter graduate from eighth grade, then lead the U.S. Open after the first day. Phil held that lead into Sunday, but remember what we said above about pressure? Yeah. With two double bogeys in the first five holes, the USS Mickelson appeared done for. Oh, but the golf gods weren’t done yanking Phil around. He retook the lead at 10, and then surrendered it for good with two bogeys on the back nine. Gah.
Here, with cute kid commentary, is Phil's attempt to force a playoff on 18:
So there you have it: six heartbreaking finishes. We’d rank them in this order, from most to least wrenching:
1. Winged Foot
3. Shinnecock Hills
4. Bethpage II
6. Bethpage (2002)
Phil’s been waiting for another shot at Pinehurst for a decade and a half. He’ll next get a shot at Shinnecock in 2018 and Winged Foot in 2020. Bethpage Black is likely to get back in the rotation soon. But Phil is about to turn 44, which is not a small consideration here. We’re not talking about the throw-darts-and-putt Open Championship; brute force is one component of a successful U.S. Open game. Put simply: time is running out for Phil. But we’d bet there’s going to be one more flirtation with the U.S. Open before it’s all over. Perhaps even in just six days.
“The career Grand Slam is the sign of the complete great player,” Mickelson says. “There are five players who have done that and those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them in a different light.”