FANS’ LOVE AFFAIR with Phil Mickelson comes easily. He wins a lot, and he always takes time to sign autographs and he keeps scowls out of the public eye.
But there’s more. Saturday, after squandering an opportunity to climb back into the championship conversation at the U.S. Open, a smile was his calling card and self-deprecating humor his trademark.
Remember, this would be the perfect course for him to complete the career Grand Slam, adding the Open title to his victories at Augusta, in the British Open and in the PGA. After all, he finished second at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, denied by the late Payne Stewart’s heroics, and the stars seem aligned for the guy who has finished second in the Open six times.
Didn’t all the pundits say so?
But instead of feel-good success, he spent two days stuck in neutral and only could shake his head in wonder at the exploits of Martin Kaymer at the top and the posse trying to keep the leader in sight.
And Saturday, playing early with a goal of fashioning a low number and making an upward move, he shot a going-nowhere-fast, 2-over 72 with one birdie on his card. Storm clouds would be building in the minds of some among golf’s elite.
Said Phil, who stands a 5-over 215 after three rounds: “I putted well … (pause) … for me.”
Even the most ardent of the Phil Phanatics could not see Mickelson playing himself back into the tournament on the golf course that played far tougher Saturday than in the first two rounds. But they could dream and improbability did not stop them from turning the sandy trail along the back nine into a river of humanity.
Their hopes did not materialize, and the “oohs” of disappointment filled the air with every putt that slipped by the hole. They longed for their hero to replicate Kenny Perry’s magic; from 220 yards, the 53-year-old Senior Open champion slammed a 4-hybrid from a bunker of the 14th hole into the cup for an eagle.
Mickelson could not match that, but with him, the glass is always half-full, never half-empty.
“My results aren’t very good,” he said, “but” – here comes the sunshine – “my game doesn’t feel bad. I’m not discouraged about it. I’m not worried about it. I just haven’t quite put everything together yet.”
More positives: “I’m excited about my driving and the fact that this year my driving took a whole different turn,” Mickelson said. The technology and the drive now for me is optimum. It’s easy for me to hit; I feel like have more control, just like I do with my irons. I’ve always felt like when I drive the ball well, I’m tough to beat because my iron play is usually pretty good.”
Then, he threw cold water on the prognosis.
“Today, (iron play) wasn’t (good),” he said.
Sunshine again: “I feel like, long-term, I’m on the right track, and I’m excited about the next few years.”
What’s the bottom line?
Fans will forever love Mickelson for his smile and persona and positive outlook. But to put the feel-good ending on his golf game, he knows he must solve his putting woes – and that does not come easily with the years – he turns 44 on Monday – piling up.
“I’m always tinkering, making adjustments, and I’ve been having trouble getting the putter to go to the target,” he said, “… (Saturday) I took over of the forward lean out and the putter head went to the target a little easier. … I hit a lot of good putts today.”
Still, frustration is natural.
“Whenver you putt well and make short ones and you make those 5- and 6-footers and you run in a couple of 20-footers, the game feels easy,” he said after Friday’s 73. “You don’t put pressure on yourself to hit it close. You can hit more of the middle of the greens. Your ball striking becomes a lot easier. Your targets are a lot bigger. The hole looks like a thimble to me right now.”
But Phil is Phil, and optimism with a touch of humor is never far away.
Knowing he would be far behind headed into today’s final round, he considered the possibilities and laid out his game plan: “Go play a good, solid round. … If I play well – if I hit it better and make some putts – I think I can shoot four- or five-under, end up around even for the tournament … (another pause) … and finish second again.”