Phil's avoiding traps that come with major failure

LEMONT, Ill. -- Phil Mickelson walked into the interview room, strode smiling past the seven television camera crews and the SRO crowd of reporters, stopped at the front row to shake hands with an endorsement sponsor, stepped onto the small green carpeted stage, settled into a black leather chair, leaned toward the tee-thin microphone and playfully said, "What questions would we possibly be talking about today?"

Hmmm. Let's see. Fireworks safety? Mark Redman -- American League All-Star? Or, I don't know, one of the greatest 18th-hole collapses in majors history?

The 12-step program that is Mickelson's recovery from the Meltdown In Mamaroneck continued here in a southwest Chicago suburb, where Lefty spoke publicly for the first time since calling himself "such an idiot" for botching the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The mental rehab is going so well that someone presented him with an authentic 1813 Afghanistan-made flint lock rifle Tuesday afternoon. Of course, just to be on the safe side, it came unloaded.

You remember what happened June 18, at the par-4 No. 18, right? Mickelson does. There was that sliced drive that doinked off a hospitality tent and onto a grass/dirt path ... a you-can't-be-serious? 3-iron from the gunk that left a bruise mark on a nearby tree ... an iron shot into a greenside bunker ... a wedge -- for the win -- that skipped across the green ... a chip -- for the tie -- that rolled 10 feet past ... a putt for a double bogey and a three-way tie for second place ... and then utter disbelief, followed by the only words Amy Mickelson could think of saying to her dazed husband: "I love you."

To his credit, a stunned Mickelson still agreed to a post-round interview, still made his way to the 18th hole for the trophy presentation to winner Geoff Ogilvy, still took the microphone and actually apologized to the New York crowds for letting them down and still signed autographs for fans who lined a nearby fence. And then he disappeared, presumably to spend at least the next three days in the fetal position.

Or so we thought. Turns out it's hard to mourn when you get tackled by your wife and three kids the moment you walk into the rental house. That's what happened to Mickelson only an hour or so removed from The Collapse.

Mickelson's 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, who was born the day after Lefty finished second at the 1999 U.S. Open, led the charge as soon as the front door opened.

"Did you win, daddy?" she said.

"No," said Mickelson.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But second is soooo good," she said. "Second is wonderful."

And then she paused. "Do you want pizza?"

This is why God invented daughters. And four majors each year.

Mickelson said he decided that Sunday evening he wasn't going to let "one bad hole" affect his golf psyche for the remainder of his season. "Sure, it's disappointing not to win the Open," he said. "I told you how much I wanted to win it. But I've got two more majors coming up."

The thing is, that wasn't just a bad hole, it was the kind of hole that makes the first paragraph of your obituary. Mickelson was a par away from winning his third consecutive major, his second major of 2006. A bogey put him into an 18-hole playoff the next day.

A double bogey put him into shock.

America last saw him in the Winged Foot scorer's area, where Amy could do little more than put an arm around him. He was distraught. A childhood dream had to take an unplayable lie.

Lucky for Lefty, there was no time to feel sorry for himself. There was the gang tackle when he walked into the rental house. The next day the family flew home to San Diego. The day after that Mickelson spent the day with Amanda at the club pool. The day after that (Amanda's birthday), a caravan of about 30 Mickelson friends drove to Disneyland and closed the place. Later in the week he flew to Liverpool to begin preparations for the British Open. Then he made an appearance in Washington D.C. to support a teachers academy. And now Mickelson is here at the Cialis Western Open, along with Tiger Woods, who had his own crash-and-burn experience at Winged Foot when he missed the cut.

Mickelson seems fine, but who knows for sure. He's smiling, which is a start. Then again, Mickelson smiles when he turns on the kitchen faucet.

As for second-guessing himself, nuh-uh, it isn't going to happen. Asked if he would have done anything different on Winged Foot's 18th -- not hit driver off the tee, not try to carve a 3-iron around the tree -- Mickelson only had one item on his wish list.

"Well, I would have parred it," he said.

So, no, he doesn't regret pulling the driver from his bag or going for the green with a tree in front of him. The decisions he can live with. The golf swings are what haunt him.

"I'm never going to forget it," he said. "It's something that I'll look back on and always remember and wish that I had done differently."

And then he told a story about playing a practice round with Arnold Palmer at the 1991 Masters. As Mickelson and the great Palmer were walking from the 18th tee box at Augusta National, Palmer gestured toward a spot.

"Right there, that's where it happened," Palmer said. "Right there."

"What happened, Mr. Palmer?" said Mickelson.

"George Lowe came over and called me over and shook my hand and congratulated me," said Palmer. "And I'll be darned if I didn't block a 7-iron in the bunker, blade it across [the green] and make double and lost."

Palmer was talking about the lead he blew at the 1961 Masters. Like Mickelson, all he needed was a par to win, a bogey for a playoff.

"Here it was 30 years ... he still remembered it and it still fired him up," said Mickelson.

Mickelson is fired up. And, yes, it's true, he'll never forget what happened at the 2006 U.S. Open. But life has a way of teaching context and perspective.

At the end of Tuesday's interview session, Mickelson spoke passionately about his work with charities that assist disabled war veterans and their families. He chatted happily with a family whose children had been helped by his work. He posed for photos with charity reps.

Amy watched her husband and then, to no one in particular, said, "It seems silly to talk about sports when you hear about these people."

She's right, of course. Until further notice, Mickelson gets a majors mulligan.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.