Commentary

Had his Phil of second place

Originally Published: June 16, 2013
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Phil MickelsonAP Photo/Julio CortezPhil Mickelson is 18 holes away from his first U.S. Open win. Or will it be his sixth second place?

ARDMORE, Pa. -- For the final six holes on Saturday, there was a middle-aged bald guy at Merion, stalking Phil Mickelson, screaming the same thing at him, over and over and over.

"WIN the Open, Phil! WIN the Open! WIN it!"

As though Mickelson perhaps hadn't thought of that.

Hmmm. WIN the Open? That's not a bad idea!

He was wasting his breath, of course. We all know Phil won't win the Open. What we don't know is: What will it be this time? A putt that hits a bee? A driver that bounces off Roger Maltbie and out of bounds? A streaker with a chainsaw?

Which meteor will fall out of the cosmos and land on Mickelson's head to lose this U.S. Open?

Because when it comes to U.S. Opens, Mickelson is a one-man Buffalo Bills, the Loss Leader, the French army.

They give a silver medal to the runner-up at the Open. Five times they've hung one around Mickelson's neck like a noose. He has lost Opens from ahead, from behind, on wet courses and dry, in the East, in the West, young and old. He's had more seconds than Timex. He's full.

So I asked him, as he was walking to sign his scorecard Saturday -- after a thrilling even-par 70 left him with a one-shot lead -- if he'd thought about how cool it would be to finally give a U.S. Open victory speech instead of the concession speech.

"Oh, it would be cool, man, I'm hitting it so good that -- " then he stopped and glared at me and held his hand up. " -- don't even, I can't even start thinking about it. C'mon man, get out of my head. One shot at a time, one hole at a time, all day tomorrow."

But there's nothing he can do to stop it. Something sinister this way comes: Heartache, sorrow, regret.

It is God's little stooge on him. The exception that proves the rule. Mickelson has won a pro tournament as an amateur, won three Masters after age 33, won 49 times around the world, a Phoenix Suns cheerleader for a wife, a jet with a bed in it, three beautiful kids and, according to Forbes, a yearly income of $48 million.

But he doesn't have that one little thing: a gold medal from the U.S. Open.

"I feel like I'm better equipped to win one of these than I've ever been," he said in the gloaming Saturday night. "My ball striking is the best it's ever been. My putting hasn't been this good in years. I'm playing some of the best golf of my life."

He really is. He's 17th in fairways hit this week and sixth in greens hit. His putting has bordered on the supernatural. He has the walk of a man who knows the answers before they've even typed up the test. But we've seen this movie before. The hero dies in the end and the busboy gets the girl.

It's always something. For instance, Mickelson always has a plan, and this week the plan is not to carry a driver in favor of a fourth wedge. Which means he'll need it Sunday on 18 when the wind suddenly switches into his face and he can't make it across the yawning 260-yard carry to the fairway.

Remember Winged Foot in 2006? When he had a one-shot lead on the final tee box? But he didn't have a 3-wood in his bag? So he had to hit driver, which he bounced off a tent on his way to losing outright to Geoff Ogilvy? And then issued the most memorable quote of his career? "I'm such an idiot." ...?

Or maybe you remember Shinnecock in 2004, when his trusty putter left for the plane six holes before he was done with it, causing him to miss two tiddlers down the stretch and lose to Retief Goosen?

Or Bethpage in 2009? When he missed easy ones at 14, 15 and 16 to lose to Lucas Glover, a lovely man who in his whole body doesn't have the talent Mickelson has in his left calf?

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
USGA/John MummerMickelson has five second-place finishes at the U.S. Open.
If there was ever the right time to win it, it would be this year, this Sunday, his 43rd birthday and Father's Day. It would be the perfect tie-a-ribbon end of a Father of the Year kind of week in which he risked his whole Open to fly across the country to attend his eighth-grade daughter's graduation speech the night before his 7:11 a.m. tee time.

You do something like that, you deserve to win the Open. Which is why it won't happen.

That sickly sixth silver is coming, it's just a question of guessing how. A flash flood on his backswing? A TV crane falling on his bag? Lee Trevino's rubber snake perhaps?

But ... what if nothing happened? What if a lady named Merion finally let him ... WIN the Open?

After all, even Mickelson, a giant sports freak, must draw inspiration from sports moments when a team or a player who never thought they'd win The Big One and then did, right? The Denver Broncos, who lost four Super Bowls before finally winning one? Or Ray Bourque, who played 21 years before he won a Stanley Cup? Susan Lucci, maybe?

"Well, maybe the (Philadelphia) Eagles?" Mickelson tried.

OK, now he's really screwed.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com