espnW: Open Championship
One of the coolest things about being an announcer is postproduction (OK, cocktail-hour) conversation as various topics in and around the game are brought up and endlessly debated.
When you sit with those who have won nearly 75 tour titles, won multiple major championships, played on and/or captained Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup teams and are Hall of Fame members, there are bound to be lots of passionate opinions. Throw in a handful of hosts and hole announcers who are absolute golf nuts and walking Google entries of golf research, and you've got yourself a world-class discussion.
One of those topics debated early last week was Phil Mickelson and whether he was more well-known for his major championship triumphs or his defeats.
Although Mickelson is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and winner of four major championships at age 43, there was a reasonably clear consensus that he would end up the same as Greg Norman, known more for his crash-and-burn finishes in the biggest events than triumphant walks to trophy presentations.
In the same breath, nearly all of us recalled Norman's ball trickling off the front of the ninth green at Augusta National in 1996, effectively wiping out his 6-shot 54-hole lead, setting the stage for Nick Faldo to win his third green jacket. We then remembered Mickelson's wide-left gaffe from the 72nd tee in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The resulting double-bogey let Australia's Geoff Ogilvy raise the hardware and caused Mickelson to utter in a postround interview, "I am such an idiot."
Jump forward to last month's U.S. Open at Merion, where Mickelson opened with a brilliant, jet-lagged 67 after an overnight flight from the West Coast, where he had attended a not-to-be-missed graduation for one of his daughters. He would make a crucial miscue at the 102-yard 13th hole in the second round that led to a bogey from the back bunker, and another on the same short hole in the final pairing on Sunday that led to another bogey. He had seemed to be within an hour of finally getting his name on the U.S. Open trophy but imploded yet again.
After Justin Rose was crowned champion, Mickelson said it was his most heartbreaking loss ever. He went down in flames again, this time not by the long, crooked shot but by two seemingly straightforward wedge shots. Six times a runner-up in his own national championship -- twice with errors that were pretty much inconceivable by a player of his credentials -- yet there they were. No thrill for "Phil the Thrill." A Hall of Fame career to be remembered more for gutting losses than for exclamation points of brilliance.
The next major on the schedule, the Open Championship, was the one in which Mickelson had by far the least amount of success throughout his career. Only a somewhat distant tie for second at Royal St. George's in 2011 added some sunshine to a dim record.
With more missed cuts than top-five finishes in the Open Championship and that scarring loss at Merion so fresh, our debate was pretty well over and done: Mickelson would be firmly planted near the top of that list of those known more for loss than victory. That opinion didn't seem to be varying at all when he headed to the final round 5 shots back of Lee Westwood's lead. While Mickelson said he thought a round in the 60s would give him a chance on Sunday, the BBC's Peter Alliss said something to the effect of, "My, he's a positive man. Let him live in his own happy little world." Even the British thought he had no chance!
To our ESPN production team's great credit, we never lost sight of Mickelson as he continued to linger through the first 12 holes of his final round while Westwood, little by little, gave away his lead and many other contenders emerged. When Mickelson began his final push with a birdie at 13 and punctuated the run with birdies at both 17 and 18 for a final-round 66, we were there to watch him douse those flaming finishes at Winged Foot and Merion.
As announcers, we're not supposed to root for anyone or any team -- no homer calls -- yet you can't help but pull for someone who has been so resilient throughout his career and who seemingly wipes out such disappointment so quickly. Our debate about wins or losses defining a career is no longer on the table. Mickelson's final six holes at Muirfield erased all that.
We will surely find another worthy debate topic to bat about in these next two weeks of Open championships in the U.K., but there is no debate about this: We are all anxious to get to the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 to see whether Mickelson can carve his name onto that elusive silver trophy and complete the career Grand Slam.