Open again eludes Phil Mickelson

PINEHURST, N.C. -- As he waited to putt on the 18th green Sunday, Phil Mickelson spotted his wife, Amy, and their three children just beyond the gallery ropes, gave them a shy wave -- then proceeded to miss his birdie effort.

The storybook ending did not materialize at Pinehurst No. 2, where 15 years ago Mickelson's agonizing quest for an elusive U.S. Open title produced the first of his six runner-up finishes -- immortalized with a statue of the late Payne Stewart behind the 18th green.

After considerable hype and pre-tournament attention, Lefty was never really in contention and finished the tournament Sunday with a 2-over-par 72.

It was a disappointing week for the five-time major champion, who continues to struggle with his putting and has yet to finish among the top 10 this year on the PGA Tour.

But while a position well back in the pack was inevitable, it wasn't any easier to take than the excruciating second-place finish he had a year ago at Merion.

"Not at all," said Mickelson, who finished at 287, 7 over par and in a tie for 28th. "It is way worse, because there's nothing more exciting than having a chance. There's nothing more exciting than waking up Sunday with a 3:25 tee time and an opportunity to win the U.S. Open, whether you win or lose, because that pressure, that nervous feeling, those butterflies, that energy from the crowd when you make a birdie, the excitement, there's no replacement for that. That's why we play."

Mickelson started with a 70 on Friday, which appeared fine given the difficulty of U.S. Open venues, but he lamented the missed opportunities to shoot a round in the 60s. And then when Martin Kaymer opened the tournament with a 65 that afternoon and added a repeat performance Friday morning, Mickelson was 10 strokes back before he teed off.

After cutting two shots off the lead early, he faltered with five bogeys to shoot 73. And that was basically it for the U.S. Open and career Grand Slam dream -- at least for now.

"You've got to put it all together to win a major championship," Mickelson said. "In this day and age, somebody's going to play well. You can't get by with scraping it around, you have to have it all firing. I didn't have it all firing this week, but there will be other chances."

And Mickelson, who turns 44 on Monday, firmly believes that.

"I believe in the next five years I'm going to have three or four really good chances, and I do believe I will get it," said Mickelson, who has won 42 times in his PGA Tour career. "I'm not upset or disappointed, I will have more chances. And right now, given the way I have been playing heading into this tournament, it was really a long shot.

"I've got to get some momentum and get my game sharp for me to really have a chance at winning and I'm going to spend the next five, six weeks seeing if I can get that going so I can finish the year strong."

Mickelson was clearly the headliner coming into the tournament. He had spoken often about his desire to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win a career Grand Slam.

And with Woods missing his second straight major championship due to back surgery, Mickelson became an even bigger focus.

"I have even more respect for Tiger than I ever had given how much of the spotlight was on Phil this week," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson's longtime caddie. "I thought Phil handled it well. As Rickie [Fowler] proved yesterday, you don't have to hit a ton of fairways to shoot 68, but you've got to have a great week on the greens.

"And I think as Phil said to you guys, he wasn't happy with his work on the greens."

No he wasn't. Mickelson went back and forth with putting grips, and although he managed to bring his putting total down to 28 for the round on Saturday and Sunday, he had 121 for the week and also had six three-putt greens.

"He's starting to play much better," Mackay said. "He is really happy with how he struck it on the range this week and it's coming around. Started seeing lots of signs last week [in Memphis]. More signs this week."

After playing three weeks in a row, Mickelson will take the next few weeks off and is not expected to return until next month, when he defends his title at the Scottish Open, to be played at Royal Aberdeen the week before he defends his Open Championship title at Royal Liverpool, where he tied for 22nd in 2006.

"I'll start getting ready for Hoylake [the town where Royal Liverpool is located] and I'm optimistic about the end of the year, but I'm excited about the coming years, too," Mickelson said. "I think that this year has been a great learning year for me as far as certain areas of my game, but I haven't quite peaked with them yet. But I feel I learned a few things and picked up some things for the coming years."