It was all right there for the taking.
One under par would have won the U.S. Open. Two of the sport's greatest golfers had their shots. And as they fly their private jets back to wherever it is that golf pros go between tournaments, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els have to know that they let one get away. How many more chances will they get to be this close to the lead on a Sunday at the U.S. Open? Five? Three? None?
If there's a defining image of the tournament for Els, it's that one at right, where he's desperately searching for his ball on the cliffside at 10. He had briefly, oh so briefly, held the lead, and seemed primed to put the pressure on Graeme McDowell.
But one frantic search later, everything pinwheeled downward. Els went bogey-double-bogey from 10 to 12, and fell from two under to one over. From then on, Els could never manage to sustain a charge. Every time he put himself in position to charge at the lead, he yipped a putt or sprayed an approach.
Mickelson didn't flame out with as much drama, but his round was every bit as frustrating, both to himself and his fans. Putt after putt after putt just didn't go where it was supposed to, leaving Mickelson looking adrift on the greens once again. And he knew that he had no one to blame but himself.
"I had a 15 foot eagle putt on 4, and I make par," Mickelson said afterward. "That was frustrating. I have a 5-iron into 6, and I make par. That was frustrating ... But at the turn, I was still under for my round. Even par for the tournament, which was the ultimately the winning score. All I had to do was shoot even par in the back, and I'm in a playoff. I wasn't able to do it, obviously. It was tough."
Mickelson hinted at criticizing the course -- when asked what it was about the course that made it so tough Sunday, he replied, "I kind of know, but I would rather not get into it" -- but stopped short.
Mickelson is playing as well as he ever has, and Els' game is clearly resurgent. Both should be factors for the final two majors of the season. But letting this one get away has to burn.