Phil Mickelson stepped to the podium behind the 18th green at Pebble Beach on Sunday with a smile on his face. This in itself wasn’t unusual; Phil generally greets the media with an indulgent grin — he knows how the game’s played, and he knows that he can control it with honey better than vinegar.
Directly behind him, the gentle waves of Stillwater Cove lapped against craggy rocks, the same way they did a hundred years ago, the same way they will a hundred years from now.
“Dealing with losing in this game,” Mickelson said, gathering his thoughts, “is a huge thing because even the best, the greatest winners win such a small percentage of the time. But I have had so many special moments here at Pebble Beach that I can't help but play here and not be thankful and appreciative and grateful for all the gifts that I've been given…” It was the right thing to say at the time — far too early on a Sunday afternoon for a victory speech.
Out on the course, the leaders of the U.S. Open hadn’t even teed off yet. By the time Gary Woodland took his celebratory walk through here, Phil would be long gone, a U.S. Open loser once again.
Twenty-nine attempts, 29 losses, six of them in the runner-up slot. Phil’s fumbled away U.S. Open trophies, and he’s had them torn from his grasp. He’s run out of gas inches from the finish line, and he’s finished 72 holes at a dead sprint only to find someone had just a touch more speed. Any way you can lose, he’s lost.
‘I’m not going to win’
Sunday afternoon, he acknowledged that the window was closing on his chance to win a U.S. Open, the final jewel in the career Grand Slam. Wednesday, he came out and said what everyone already knew: it was done.
“I really don't have many more chances,” Mickelson said before this week’s Travelers Championship. “Probably have to come to the realization I'm not going to win the U.S. Open, but I'm not going to stop trying. I'll keep trying. You never know.”
On one hand, it shouldn’t matter; Mickelson has done virtually everything it’s possible to do in the game. He’s already a Hall of Famer, ranked ninth all-time on the career victories list, second to Tiger Woods in active majors won, universally acknowledged as one of the best ever to play the game. He’s got wealth, fame, respect.
And yet … it’s always the things you didn’t do that burn the most, isn’t it?
The smartest guy in the room
About all Mickelson has in common with the average golfer is that they’re both swinging clubs at balls. Beyond that, Phil’s living in a stratospheric bracket of income, talent and privilege. Even so, the reason why he’s resonated so strongly with three generations of golf fans is that he seems so recognizably human. (Whether this is all a grand act, like the smile at the end of a losing round, is to some degree irrelevant — fans bond with what they can see, and Phil cultivates his image like a rose garden.)
Mickelson shows actual human emotion on the course, unlike some others we could name. He gets himself into absurd jams by attempting stupid shots, and then gets himself right back out with even more ridiculous ones. He carries himself like he’s the smartest guy in the room, and who doesn’t want to roll with that kind of self-confidence?
Plus, the dude can tell a great story:
He’s been around so long it’s tough — for any golf fan under 40, impossible — to remember a time when he wasn’t a force on Tour. Here’s a measure of how long Phil’s career has lasted: the period from his first Tour victory back to Jack Nicklaus’s final Masters win is almost the exact length of time, within days, from Rory McIlroy’s last major victory to right now.
Phil’s been a constant presence for so long that fans whose parents took them to see Mickelson play are now taking their own kids to watch Lefty in action. The years roll on, the life events pile up, and yet every April, there’s Phil among the azaleas; every June, there’s Phil, just falling short at the U.S. Open.
Sunset is coming
It’s not a stretch to say that the sunset on Phil’s career comes at a time when many — maybe even most — of his fans are reckoning with the inevitable truths of their own lives, consciously or not. Opportunities grow up to a certain point … and then they start to shrink.
Think about it this way: You’ve got that one dream out there you’ve always wanted to make a reality. Maybe it’s opening your own bar, or writing a novel, or traveling across the country, or seeing the Pyramids, or running a marathon. Whatever it is, you (hopefully) haven’t given up on it, even if in your heart of hearts you know it probably won’t happen.
At a certain point, though, the door slams shut. Maybe you could have worked harder to get through it; maybe fate was never going to give you that chance. Either way, the story’s over. What happens when you have to give up on that dream? What then? That’s what Mickelson is reckoning with now.
Tuesday night out on the 17th fairway, 33 of the 36 living U.S. Open champions gathered for a photo. That group includes legends like Woods and Nicklaus, of course, but it also includes names like Lucas Glover, Geoff Ogilvy, Justin Rose and Retief Goosen — players who were still standing during the many Opens where Phil was the last to fall.
That has to be the only photo you could possibly take of golf legends that doesn’t include Mickelson, the only way to draw the lines in a way to exclude him. And that’s got to burn a bit. You can’t be the smartest guy in the room when you’re not even allowed in the room.
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