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He's Second, but Don't Call Him a Loser

June 21, 2004|THOMAS BONK

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — An hour after the U.S. Open ended Sunday evening, after finishing a session with the print media, Phil Mickelson walked out a side door of the press tent and down a set of green, metal steps for one last television interview.

The video camera rolled. The session wasn't long, probably only a few minutes, or an instant compared with the more than four hours he spent trying to make sense of treacherous Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

A cold evening wind kicked up dirt and scattered scraps of paper around his feet. As Mickelson offered his answers, maintenance workers tossed black plastic bags filled with garbage into the dumpster just over Mickelson's shoulder, slightly out of camera range.

That's all you need to know about how it feels to finish second.

The interview ended and Amy Mickelson put her arm around her husband's waist. She smiled and patted her heart. A cart and a driver were waiting to take the Mickelsons up the hill to the clubhouse. Mickelson climbed in the cart and Amy sat on his lap as they sped off into the twilight, their arms around each other.

That's all you need to know about how it feels to be Mickelson these days.

There's nothing great about being second at the U.S. Open, which is just what Jack Nicklaus would say, because it's something he did four times. Mickelson is now only one behind Nicklaus, and it's a mark he has no interest in matching.

But the new Masters champion and, for the third time in his career, the runner-up at the U.S. Open, spent four days on eastern Long Island proving that what happened in Augusta was no illusion. Mickelson really is comfortable with who he is, what he is about and where he seems to be heading.

He lost to Retief Goosen by two shots on a trying day of golf for everyone at Shinnecock, where the average score was the highest for a final U.S. Open round in 32 years.

But he almost won it. Mickelson birdied the 16th hole for a one-shot lead, then he made a double bogey at the par-three 17th hole, which he blamed on a misjudged bunker shot that flew too far from the pin.

The wind that raked the green didn't allow his six-foot putt for par to break the way he planned. Then he missed a five-footer for bogey and tapped in for double bogey.

Even then, Mickelson thought he still had a chance, although it didn't turn out that way. Goosen was too steady, it was his day. Until that Sunday two months ago at the Masters, Mickelson never had his day. Now, in the next major he played, he almost had his day again.

The talk about a possible Grand Slam is over, mainly because of a nerve-bending putting display by Goosen, who had 11 one-putt greens, but Mickelson couldn't stop the good feelings. Even his disappointment could not mask the fact that he was proud of himself.

It was probably far-fetched anyway, the notion that anyone besides Tiger Woods actually had it in them to win all four majors in one year. This year, though, it didn't seem so outlandish, for some reason. Mickelson had the Masters and had the U.S. Open in his sights.

It's ironic that Mickelson could be considered a possible Grand Slam winner after spending his career being thought of as a major underachiever.

Except for the ending, this was a great week for Mickelson. He said it was a tough test of golf, which is the understatement of the week, and that he survived it.

Since the Masters, golf has been a coming-out party for Mickelson, who by rights should have been known by all years ago. He turned 34 on Wednesday, but has grown up right before our eyes in the two months.

That might have been what he was talking about when he was asked if he felt differently about himself since winning the Masters.

Mickelson said he's on to some good things. He even made fun of himself when asked about the strides he has made since he was second to Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, second to Woods in the 2002 Open at Bethpage Black and now second again.

Second, second, second, that's not many strides, Mickelson said. They're pretty level, he said.

He said he was relieved he didn't have to answer any more questions about finishing second again, now that he has a Masters jacket in his closet.

There were no negatives about being second this time. He said being second this time is a positive, all things considered.

That's a new person, all right. That's also all you need to know about how it feels to be second in the U.S. Open and Phil Mickelson these days.

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