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Pinehurst Might Owe Him One

June 02, 2005|THOMAS BONK

Before there was the image seared on the television screen, the one that showed the smiling, leaping Phil Mickelson at the 18th green of Augusta National celebrating the putt that won the Masters a year ago, there was another version that many witnessed but few remember.

It was the Phil of defeat. The picture is 6 years old now, but it's still fresh. Mickelson is standing on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 on the last day of the 1999 U.S. Open and he's watching Payne Stewart coax a 15-foot putt up a hill and into the hole, a putt that saved par, beat Mickelson, won the U.S. Open and changed everything we knew about the guy who didn't win.

For instance, does anybody remember that Mickelson stood over a birdie putt at the 18th that would have forced a playoff? From 22 feet, he missed, the ball breaking hard from right to left.

Stewart had laid up from the rough, knocked it 15 feet below the hole, watched Mickelson miss, then staked his claim to the national championship with one of the longest, clutch, closing putts in U.S. Open history.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Golf championships -- An article in Thursday's Sports section about Phil Mickelson's prospects in the U.S. Open said John Daly has won three times as many major titles as Mickelson. Daly has won two major championships; Mickelson has won one.

As it turned out, it was the last of Stewart's three major championships -- he also won the 1989 PGA Championship and the 1991 U.S. Open. A few months later, when his private jet lost pressure, he became unconscious and died, with the jet crashing later.

Pinehurst probably was Stewart's finest moment in a career cut short. But for Mickelson, that one day at Pinehurst, where he could have won but didn't, simply added to his reputation of not being able to win majors. It could have been his finest moment, pre-Masters variety.

In fact, Mickelson was unnerved enough that at his next major, he missed the cut at Carnoustie in the British Open, something he has done only one other time in his career.

After Carnoustie, the 2004 Masters was the 18th major Mickelson would play. And, of course, it would be the first he won.

He had some close calls -- three consecutive thirds at the Masters, a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002 -- but nothing to change his appellation as the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major.

If there was to have been a turning point, it should have been Pinehurst. He shot 67 in the first round and was never lower than second place at the end of any round, but Mickelson had no defense for Stewart, who closed with a stunning display of clutch putting.

At 16, after a poor approach, Stewart rolled in a scary, downhill 25-footer for par. He made birdie from four feet at 17 to take the lead, then ended it a hole later. Mickelson hit a poor chip and wound up two-putting for a bogey at 16, missed an eight-footer for a birdie at the 17th and missed his long chance for birdie at the 18th.

And that's the way it ended. Stewart held the trophy and Mickelson held his head up, or tried to anyway.

His burden had become even heavier, and Pinehurst was at the least an accomplice.

The reason all this is worth rehashing is, of course, the fact that the U.S. Open is back at Pinehurst No. 2, and two weeks from today, Mickelson gets another crack at it.

Here's where he can prove, once and for all, that he's a great player. How do you win 26 PGA Tour events in a career and only one of them is a major? The other great players' ratios are all better: Tiger Woods has 43 victories and nine majors, Vijay Singh has 27 and three, Ernie Els has 15 and three, and Retief Goosen has five and two.

Look at it this way: Larry Mize, Mark Brooks, Rich Beem, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel and Todd Hamilton, to name a few, have as many major championships as Mickelson ... and John Daly has three times as many.

At this juncture of his career -- he turns 35 on opening day at Pinehurst -- Mickelson should be all about winning majors. And, yes, he probably should have won several more, maybe even the one that slipped away on a gray Sunday afternoon in June, six years ago at Pinehurst No. 2.

Mickelson is playing some of the best golf of his career, he has won twice this year and he battled Woods down the stretch in a memorable duel at Doral. He has never been more ready, or so it appears, to put himself in contention and take another shot at a major title.

Mickelson could use another major victory, just like anybody else at Pinehurst, where it could have all started for him but didn't. Coming through this time would do more than cement Mickelson's reputation, it would be a major accomplishment, and right now, he could use a little more of that.

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