Commentary

Phil Mickelson lets one get away

Late slide leaves Lefty out of playoff, opening door for Derek Ernst's first win

Updated: May 6, 2013, 10:52 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With a cold, rainy day in the forecast, and an early start scheduled to try and beat it, Phil Mickelson made no effort to hide the fact that he simply hoped it would rain all night and wash out the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

Perhaps Lefty knew something.

It certainly was a miserable day Sunday at Quail Hollow Golf Club. And it did rain for most of the morning and afternoon.

But it didn't rain early and often enough to stop play, and Mickelson was unable to hang on to a lead he had as late as the 16th hole. Two late bogeys dropped him from one shot in front to one shot behind, and a feel-good victory to top an otherwise lousy week at the Wells Fargo Championship was not attained for one of the game's most popular players.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonPhil Mickelson reacts after missing a birdie putt on No. 18 that would have put him into the playoff.

All credit to rookie Derek Ernst -- who most likely Mickelson could not identify given a 50-50 chance -- who prevailed in a playoff over David Lynn, earning a spot in this week's Players Championship as well as next year's Masters. That is the stuff of dreams.

Mickelson has achieved far bigger triumphs, and he dearly wanted to win Sunday at Quail Hollow, a place he loves and where he has never won. But the win wouldn't mean nearly as much to him as it does to a 22-year-old playing in just his ninth PGA Tour event.

Still, Mickelson was disappointed and knows he let one get away. It's not the same hurt as some of his close calls in major championships or numerous other blown opportunities. But it was a chance nonetheless for a 42nd PGA Tour victory.

And it would have been the first time since 2009 that he won more than once in the same season.

"I'm pretty bummed out,'' Mickelson said after his final-round 73 left him one shot out of a playoff. "I thought this was one I had in control. It's disappointing.''

Mickelson had joked about liking his chances much better in a playoff if the final round got washed out. Due to the poor condition of the greens and a rain-filled forecast for Monday, there was a good bit of chatter that the final round would not be played.

In that case, the scores would have reverted to 54 holes and Mickelson would have played off against Nick Watney.

But the rain held off until mid-morning, and by then all of the players were on the course. For a time, the leaderboard was stout, with Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Watney all at or near the top.

But none of them ended up breaking par. In fact, only three players shot in the 60s on Sunday, with three others shooting in the 80s. Ernst and Lynn each shot 2-under-par 70 in some trying conditions, with Ernst making one of just four birdies on the 18th hole to get into the playoff.

Ernst came into the week ranked 1,207th in the world (Mickelson was 11th). A rookie who played college golf at UNLV a year ago, he advanced through all four stages of the PGA Tour's qualifying to get his card, then missed five of seven cuts this year with his best finish a tie for 47th last week in New Orleans.

He wasn't even in the field this week until several players dropped out, giving him a shot as the fourth alternate. He had planned to play the Web.com Tour event in Athens, Ga., but when he got in here, Ernst just kept on driving to Charlotte. His last tournament victory? More than a year ago in an event at Arizona State.

With this win came a first-place check of $1,206,000. There's also the spot this week at the Players, later this year at the WGC-Bridgestone, next year's Tournament of Championships and The Masters.

But the best perk?

"The two years on tour,'' he said of the exemption that goes to tour winners. "The money is money; it will come and go. But winning and having a job and playing out here for the next two years, that's what I want to do. I want to play out here, so that is the best part.''

[+] EnlargeDerek Ernst
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneDerek Ernst earned his tour card for the next two years by winning the Wells Fargo Championship.

That, of course, is of no concern to Mickelson. At age 42 and with 41 wins, he is a lifetime tour member. He also has nearly $70 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour, which doesn't take into account endorsements and worldwide golf.

Mickelson gets more stoked about taking a few bucks off of practice-round foes than the money he sacrificed Sunday -- $750,400 if you consider the difference between first and third.

Still, winning is winning, and that's the reason -- really the only reason -- Mickelson is out here at this point.

"I felt if I could get to 10 under ... 15 was a critical hole,'' Mickelson said of the par-5 hole, where he held a one-shot lead and hit his second shot to the in the front bunker. "Had an easy bunker shot and I hit a poor bunker shot. That hole cost me, because going into 16, 17 and 18, you really want to have a couple-shot advantage.

"Then I bogeyed 16 and 17. There's just no excuse. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't anything out-of-the-ordinary difficult. I should have made par.'' After having made 47 of 49 putts inside 10 feet heading into the third round on some terrible greens, Mickelson couldn't get those two crucial ones to drop.

Then at the 18th, needing a birdie to tie, he left himself 222 yards to the pin and nailed a hybrid over the flag to 15 feet behind the hole. He ran the birdie putt by, his chance at a playoff gone.

Three pars away from victory, Mickelson couldn't get it done, although he was hardly alone on this day.

"But I let it slide there,'' he said.

A Mickelson victory would have gone a long way toward erasing all the negativity from a tough week: bad greens, poor weather, no Tiger Woods, the controversial Vijay Singh ruling, another armchair rules official calling in (on Sergio Garcia) and the miserable conditions.

Then again, for Derek Ernst, the week at Quail Hollow was nothing but beautiful.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com