OAKMONT, Pa. – Phil Mickelson has a bum wrist. The Oakmont Country Club has this Amazon-deep rough that is so thick that should you have to hit your ball out of it, it would probably stop your swing completely and make even a healthy wrist feel like snapping.
So Mickelson isn’t all that confident heading into the 107th U.S. Open. If he happens to put it in this course’s famed "church pews" he might as well hit his knees and start praying … for a lightning delay. Maybe one that lasts a week.
"I have concerns," Mickelson said.
Mickelson with concerns is like a U.S. Open with slow greens. Something’s wrong. This is the guy whose grip it and rip it philosophy made him popular even as a bridesmaid to all those methodical Tiger Woods dominations. This is the one who always seemed to go for the pin when a lay-up was better strategy, who eschewed fitness even when he knew better, who redefined the term hard-headed.
He got it under control, of course, finally won some majors (three of them) and looked like a reformed golfing wild child.
And then a year ago, up a stroke on the final hole of the Open at New York’s Winged Foot, he hit an unnecessary tee shot off a hospitality tent, hit an even more unnecessary three iron out of trouble (only to find more) and wound up losing the dang thing altogether.
In one single hole he went from winning his third consecutive major (2005 PGA, 2006 Masters) and heading into the British looking for the Phil Slam, while making a push on Woods as the best golfer on the planet, to the same old Mickelson.
"I just can’t believe I did that," Mickelson said after, shaking his head.
"I’m such an idiot."
Everyone fails. Even a failure as spectacular and complete as Mickelson’s happens. The response is always what's important, the way adversity gets handled.
For Mickelson, it’s been the same old, same old. He still can’t believe he did what he did, how he handed over a major like that by playing hot shot, no brain golf. But, then again, who, other than himself, does he have to apologize to?
Golf is the loneliest of sports. There is no one else to put the blame on, no teammate to complain about. You get all the glory, you get all the scorn. You also get all the opportunity to move on, to push forward. Even if no one will ever, truly, forget.
"Oh, no, I'll still hear about that," he laughed Tuesday. "Come on, of course."
"I don't ever want to put it totally behind me," he said later. "I still want to look back on it and recall what happened, because I used that analysis to design a game plan to start driving the ball better. Hopefully (it) has helped me implement (a) program to get me started (this week).
"If I just forget about it, I'm not taking advantage of the opportunity to take advantage of some weaknesses [and] hopefully turn [them] into strengths."
In losing, if anything, he became even more popular. Particularly here on the East Coast, which, for whatever reason, has always been a stronghold for the California native. New York especially has always loved Phil, and judging by the crowds that followed him during Tuesday’s practice round, Western Pennsylvania is no different.
Tuesday he was his normal self out there, taking the time to smile and chat with fans in a true manner so few of his peers do. The wrist injury prohibits autographs, but he was no less genuine in his interactions. Afterward, in the press tent, he combined self-deprecating humor and a dose of humility. No chips on his shoulder. No cries of disrespect. No trying to rewrite history.
And no misplaced confidence, no talking out of order. He was asked, as the father of three, if he wanted to give Woods any parenting advice heading into the any-minute-now-birth of Tiger’s first cub.
"Yeah," Phil laughed, "me giving Tiger advice doesn't really feel right, about anything."
And so one year after the most public of his meltdowns, the most inexplicable of his golfing mistakes, Mickelson was relaxed and content and not giving fans and media anything juicy – no shots at Tiger, no woe-is-me rants.
His wrist is going to be trouble, especially if he hits into trouble. He admits he wouldn’t be playing if this wasn’t the Open. But Mickelson, never afraid to fail, never shy about going for broke, figures what the heck?
The high rough is looming, church pews and side jungles, and who knows how ugly this one could get. But that won’t change Sunshine Phil’s disposition one single bit.