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This One Will Follow Him Around Awhile

GOLF / THOMAS BONK

June 19, 2006|THOMAS BONK

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — For the first 20 minutes after the most excruciating defeat in his life, Phil Mickelson never showed his head. He was in the room they use to sign scorecards, on the other side of an archway from the locker room at Winged Foot Golf Club, behind a closed door.

Amy Mickelson, in a bright gold dress, was in the room, an arm's length away from her husband, and when they came out together, a group of U.S. Open officials took Mickelson back out to the 18th green to take part in the awards ceremony.

It should have been for him.

There were three runners-up Sunday at the U.S. Open and Mickelson was among them, but he was the only one who bothered to show up for the trophy ceremony to honor Geoff Ogilvy. Neither Colin Montgomerie nor Jim Furyk was still around.

As he stood, shoulder to shoulder with Ogilvy, Mickelson was introduced as having the "heart of a champion."

He did not, however, receive the trophy of a champion, not after he made a double bogey at the last hole and lost the U.S. Open.

Mickelson's voice cracked as he addressed the hushed crowd: "The only thing that I can say, to everyone who followed me, is I'm sorry. I just can't believe I did that."

He probably isn't the only one. He had a two-shot lead with three holes to play. He still led by a shot at the 18th tee, needing to make one last par on the last hole to win the U.S. Open.

It would be his third consecutive victory in a major. It would vault Mickelson into the company of Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan. It would cement his reputation as one of the greatest players of his era.

It didn't happen. And now there was Mickelson, forced to return to the 18th hole, where everything went wrong, for a ceremony that wasn't his and for a trophy he wouldn't hold.

The 18th at Winged Foot is an expansive 450-yard par four with a slight dogleg to the left and an elevated, tilted green that's nestled among trees, just steps away from the stone clubhouse.

How can something so beautiful be capable of causing so much sorrow? Not long before Mickelson took it on, the 18th crushed the hopes of Montgomerie, who made a double bogey.

And now it was Mickelson's turn.

He never hit the fairway.

From the tee, he hit a driver and the ball went offline to the left, hitting a hospitality tent.

With his second shot, he tried to hit a big, carving slice around the trees. He hit the trees and the ball came bouncing back.

His third shot flew into a greenside bunker on the left, and his fourth traveled across the green and down a slope on the other side.

Two more shots and Mickelson's ball was in the hole, his scorecard called for a six, and Mickelson was calling himself names.

"I am such an idiot," he said.

Mickelson meant he couldn't believe he doubled the last hole to lose the Open. He had no problems with the way he played it.

Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing coach, said there's no second-guessing for using a driver instead of a safer club, saying Mickelson needed to go with what has helped him all year. Neither did Smith find fault with Mickelson's choice of trying to curve the ball around the trees instead of a less risky punch out to the fairway.

Johnny Miller had no such qualms. Miller, the commentator on the NBC telecast, unloaded on Mickelson.

Mickelson, said Miller, "couldn't have worse decisions than he's had."

Miller was sure that Mickelson should not have used a driver.

"I'll tell you what, Ben Hogan has officially rolled over in his grave.... I cannot believe he didn't hit four-wood there."

No chance he was going to use a four-wood, Mickelson said, but there was every chance it would be a long time before he'd get over this one. Miller called it an "amazing collapse," and that's probably something about which he and Mickelson would agree.

It was the end of a long and disappointing day for Mickelson, who arrived at Winged Foot 5 1/2 hours before his tee time and began his usual practice routine. He spent precisely 80 minutes on the putting green, had lunch in the players' lounge, changed his shirt and then arrived at the driving range to see Smith and short-game coach Dave Pelz for a last-minute tuneup.

If only winning the U.S. Open were as simple to program, if the timing could be just as easily worked out.

When the trophy ceremony was over and Mickelson had finished explaining what went wrong, he wrapped his arm around his wife's shoulders and then they walked away from Winged Foot.

Mickelson did not look back, but he surely will, possibly for a very long time.

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