OAKMONT, Pa. -- Phil Mickelson called himself "such an idiot" for turning the 2006 U.S. Open into a Greek tragedy before an adoring New York crowd, and the next day, Arnold Palmer was on the phone telling a reporter the Winged Foot wipeout "hurt me as much as it hurt Phil."
Palmer had blown a few majors himself, of course, so he spoke from experience when he predicted Mickelson would recover from the unholy mess he made of the 72nd hole. Arnie said he would likely drop Phil a note "and tell him it's just one tournament. I'll tell him he shouldn't let it ruin a great life and a great run." Or a great legacy. Mickelson did indeed recover to win two more majors for a total of five, matching Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros. But he hasn't completed the career Grand Slam at a U.S. Open, and the failure has left a hole in Mickelson's résumé that Lefty believes is bigger than these 600-plus-yard par-5s at Oakmont.
Mickelson is about to go 0-for-26 in his national championship quest. He turned 46 on a rain-delayed Thursday, and on an endless Friday, he played 34 holes and left the course at 7-over par, in serious danger of missing a second consecutive cut in the majors for the first time in nine years. Dressed in second-round black under a blistering afternoon sun, Mickelson proved once again that Oakmont is no country for old men. He made nine bogeys and one birdie over his final 25 holes.
No, this one isn't going to hurt nearly as much as Winged Foot did, or as much as Merion did in 2013, or as much as Shinnecock did in 2004. But this is going to hurt all the same. The other day, Mickelson confirmed that the U.S. Open is the tournament he wants more than any other. He admitted he constantly thinks about it, and for good reason: He has finished second a record half-dozen times.
A first-place finish at long last, Mickelson said, "would mean the world to me." He called this pursuit of more than a quarter century "my biggest thought, my biggest focus, because I view those players that have won the four majors totally different than I view ... all the others." But as desperately as Mickelson wants to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as career Grand Slam winners in the Masters era, Mickelson doesn't need a U.S. Open trophy to go down among the all-time greats. The Open Championship victory at Muirfield three years ago not only came completely out of left field, and neutralized the devastating defeat at Merion, but it secured Mickelson's place in history.
Picture one golfing fan approaching another at a sports bar and asking if he or she counted Mickelson among the greatest players ever. Pre-Muirfield, the answer would've likely been a hodge-podge of hemming and hawing and struggling to get past the fact Mickelson had captured only two legs of the career Grand Slam.
Post-Muirfield? The answer is an immediate and resounding yes.
Mickelson's all-American, high-flight game was never supposed to stand up to the British winds, and yet he delivered a closing 66 so magical that it left his longtime caddie and friend, Jim Mackay, in a puddle of tears. This most improbable third leg of the Grand Slam landed Mickelson alongside Palmer, Nelson and Sam Snead.
Muirfield wiped out the need for anything else, even if Mickelson doesn't see it that way. And on a certain level, it would be fitting if the imperfect golfer retired one day with his now imperfect major championship record intact.
Put aside his choices away from the game, his alleged decision to continue gambling big money despite promising his family he would stop in 2003 after his son nearly died during childbirth -- a decision the SEC claimed placed Mickelson in the middle of a federal insider-trading investigation. (He wasn't charged with a crime; he was required to pay back more than $1 million.)
This is about the golfer, not the man. And like Palmer, Mickelson made reckless -- if wildly entertaining -- choices on the course, none more so than the second shot on Winged Foot's final hole, the one he put into a tree to hand the tournament to Geoff Ogilvy. There had to be an enduring price to pay for Lefty's course management sins. Asked recently if he felt for Mickelson after what went down in 2006, Ogilvy said:
"For sure, especially with his body of work in the U.S. Open. There's a couple of them he did everything he could and didn't work out for him. (Winged Foot's) one and a few others he didn't finish off. But I feel bad for him. ... It feels like he had a chance every year for a long time. That's hard in itself. It's not going to hurt his legacy or anything. (But) what a bookend to his career. Everyone would be happy if he won it."
Only Mickelson's not going to win it. He's not going to intensify his inexplicable love affair with New York by breaking through at Shinnecock in 2018, or at Winged Foot (of all places) in 2020, when Lefty will turn 50. The U.S. Open ages a man like no other major.
Not that the crowd seemed to care Friday at Oakmont. After he pumped his fist over a par save on the first hole of his second round, Mickelson crossed the bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike and arrived at the second tee to hear fans shout "Happy Birthday" at him. The second-best player of Woods' generation might be the most beloved American golfer since Palmer, an unofficial title earned through eye contact, waves of acknowledgment and autographs for one and all in victory or defeat.
But the outpouring of affection didn't inspire him from tee to green. Mickelson had said he hoped Oakmont would turn dry and angry and spiral out of control, a la Shinnecock in 2004, because he figured his 25 years of experience would give him an advantage in extreme conditions over younger foes. So Thursday's downpours didn't help him. Neither did a swing he has been trying to figure out since October for the sole purpose of winning this event.
On the first tee Friday afternoon, a USGA official introduced Mickelson to the fans simply as a resident of Rancho Santa Fe, California, before the official introduced the man who prevailed at Merion, Justin Rose, as the 2013 winner. It's surely pained Mickelson over the years to listen as lesser opponents were welcomed to the tee box as U.S. Open champs.
That's OK, because a place next to Snead among the best players never to win the national championship hardly represents a burden to carry to the grave. Phil Mickelson might not know it, or accept it, but his futile chase of his golfing grail isn't as damaging or defining as he might believe.
In the end, just because you want really something doesn't mean you really need it.