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“I Am Such An Idiot”

Reliving Mickelson's U.S. Open nightmare at Winged Foot
Phil

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Alan Shipnuck’s book Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.

After all this craziness, Mickelson arrived at the seventy-second tee with the clearest of mandates: make a par, win the U.S. Open, at last. Two days earlier, Tiger Woods, still mourning the recent death of his father, missed his first cut at a major championship since turning pro. With one more par, Mickelson would be three-quarters of the way to Woods’s grandest achievement, the Tiger Slam. For all of his spectacular success, Mickelson had never been player of the year or reached number one in the world ranking; he was one more par from securing both honors. There was a frenzied feeling in the air, fed by the final-hole crack-ups and the fact that for the preceding seventy-one holes, Mickelson had been juggling chain saws on a high wire while wearing Rollerblades. “He had no business being anywhere near the lead,” says [Johnny] Miller. “He had literally no control of his golf ball. What Phil did at Winged Foot might be the greatest four days of scrambling in golf history. Well, three days and seventeen holes.”

Alan Shipnuck Phil Mickelson excerpt - I Am Such An Idiot

Now Phil and Bones had to decide which club to pull on the tee of a 450-yard dogleg left. “You can’t hit driver there,” says Jack Nicklaus, a four-time U.S. Open champion. “How many fairways did he hit that day? Two! Driver is just inviting trouble. You have to keep the ball in front of you.” Bones will go to his grave defending driver. “There was never even a consideration about hitting anything but driver,” he said the day after the tournament. “Phil hits his 4-wood no more than about 240 yards. A 4-wood into a ten- to fifteen-mile-per-hour wind uphill is going to go about 225 yards. There was no possible way to hit 4-wood long enough to reach the dogleg if he missed the fairway.” That was the calculus: given the two-way miss that haunted Mickelson throughout the round, it seemed likely he would uncork another wild drive, and in that case it would be better to wind up closer to the green, allowing for more recovery options. Two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North disagrees with that thinking. “It’s the dumbest fifteen minutes in golf history,” he says. “You hit 3-iron then 5-iron and win the U.S. Open. Hello?! Even if he comes up a little short of the green, the way Phil was chipping and putting that week, you have to bank on him getting it up-and-down, like Ogilvy did.” On Sunday’s fourteenth hole—which played only eight yards shorter than eighteen—Mickelson had employed his 4-iron off tee; he made a mediocre swing but the ball stopped a couple paces from the edge of the fairway, in the intermediate rough, allowing for a straightforward approach shot to the heart of the green. “I know what Bones is saying,” says Miller, “but what makes Phil so shaky with his driver—that steepness in the downswing—is what makes him such a good iron player. All he has to do is get a 3- or 4-iron in play off the tee and he is still in control of the tournament. It doesn’t seem that hard.”

As Mickelson settled over the ball, holding lumber, Miller intoned on the telecast, “This better be the 4-wood.”

It ain’t.

“I tell you what, Ben Hogan is officially rolling over in his grave,” Miller added in an instantly famous quip.

With his driver, Mickelson took a mighty lash at the ball. “Phil has had the same miss his whole life,” says his boyhood teacher Dean Reinmuth. “His left knee and foot pop out toward ball on the way down, not forward to ball and up into his toe like on a normal swing. His left hip drops, his pelvis thrusts toward ball, and it’s like a baseball player with an inside pitch—he gets jammed. The club is blocked by his body on that way down, so he misses left. Add in adrenaline and pressure, and slight flaws get amped up.” This is the swing Mickelson made on the eighteenth hole at the 2004 Ryder Cup, leading to Woods’s icy glare. It’s the swing he made fifteen minutes earlier on the seventeenth tee at Winged Foot. He did it again on eighteen, and his ball flew so far left, it hit the roof of a hospitality tent seventy or eighty or a hundred yards off-line. Given the stakes, and the result, it could quite possibly be the worst drive in golf history. But Mickelson got the break of a lifetime when his ball ricocheted in the direction he was aiming and drew a clean lie in rough that had been trampled down by the fans. Still, a towering Norway maple tree was directly between him and the green. Now he faced another decision. “It’s a crazy game, innit?” says Nick Faldo, a celebrated tactician in his day. “If you need a three there, it’s easy—all the decisions are made for you. If you need a four, there are so many ways you can make that score. People talk about choking under pressure, but just as often that is mental, not physical. When Phil knocks it in the trees, his thinking has to change. It’s no longer about making a four. He’s got to make a five no matter what. Not losing the tournament becomes more important than winning it outright. Because if there is [an eighteen-hole Monday] playoff, he’s going to beat Geoff Ogilvy.”

“You’re talking about one of the best wedge players of all time,” says three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin. “He can hit a little shot back into the fairway to his favorite yardage. Then you knock that up to ten or fifteen feet, and you have that putt to win the championship. Worst case, you tap in for bogey and take your chances in the playoff. I have a hard time understanding any other play, but maybe I’m old-fashioned.” Mickelson knows how ruthlessly effective this kind of thinking man’s golf can be: he lost major championships to both Payne Stewart and David Toms when they laid up on the seventy-second hole par-fours after errant drives and then saved par with full-swing wedges.

Mickelson and Bones quick-walked to the ball, propelled by the unseen forces of fate. They were moving fast, but the ensuing discussion was brief; Mickelson unsheathed his 3-iron. He was going to attempt to reach the green with a banana slice around the tree, more or less the exact same shot he had played on the previous hole.

“I was trying to make a four,” Mickelson said.

After a lifetime of swashbuckling and being celebrated for his derring-do, he couldn’t see any other way out of the trees. Says Miller, “He got seduced into trying the hero shot. He wanted to win in dashing style. I guess Phil thought winning with a layup would somehow be less manly. He wanted the thrill of hitting a high-risk shot on the last hole of the Open.”

For those who know Mickelson’s game intimately, the slicing 3-iron did not seem like a risky play. “When I saw he had a good lie, I raised my arms because I knew he was going to win,” says Rob Mangini, Mickelson’s college teammate and still close friend. “That’s just a bread-and-butter cut for a guy who can curve the ball more than any human on the planet. I’ve seen him do that a thousand times. Phil can play that shot in his sleep.” Ogilvy agrees, saying, “His handicap is how good he is at that shot. Most players don’t have that shot, so they don’t see it and don’t even consider that it’s an option. They just wedge it out. They’re forced into the right decision because they don’t have the skills. Unfortunately, Phil has the skills to hit it from anywhere. He thought he had the shot, so you can’t second-guess that because he can pull off the impossible.”

For 71.5 holes, Mickelson had been tempting the golf gods with unlikely and occasionally miraculous recoveries. Now, finally, at the worst possible moment, his luck ran out. For his approach shot to the green, the strike was clean but the start line ten yards too far left. His ball headed inexorably for the trunk of the elm. I was standing right there with Rick Smith and will never forget the sound of the ball hitting the tree: as loud as a judge pounding the gavel with a guilty verdict. Smith went ashen—he knew his life has just changed. Mike Lupica, the in-your-face New York newspaper columnist, panted up to Smith and shouted, “He might not make five from there!” Smith somehow didn’t punch him.

Mickelson’s ball ricocheted into the rough, maybe twenty-five yards ahead of where he had been standing. “You rarely see a great player hit two bad shots in a row,” says Paul Azinger. “Ever rarer is for them to make two bad decisions in a row. Somehow Phil did both.”

The situation was grim, as Mickelson still had tree trouble and now a worse angle to a well-fortified green. This time he played too much cut and his ball expired short and left of the green, burrowing into the fluffy sand. With the green sloping away from him, it would be impossible to get the ball close to the hole and everyone knew it. The swollen crowd around the eighteenth green whistled and buzzed with disbelief. The enormity of the unfolding disaster visited Mickelson as he trudged up the fairway. There was a blank look in his eyes and his face went sallow. He blasted out of the bunker and his ball skittered across the green and into the rough. Now he had to make the bogey chip to force a playoff. He missed the hole, and his last chance at salvation. For the fourth time in the last eight years, he had blown the United States Open.

Mickelson hid out in the scorers’ area for a long time, trying to collect himself; Amy draped an arm around his shoulders and whispered in his ear. When Phil finally emerged, his eyes were red and watery. “I still am in shock that I did that,” he says. “I just can’t believe I did that. I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I couldn’t par the last hole. It really stings.”

“For the most part, the best players are the best because they’re the best up here,” Ogilvy said in the champion’s press conference, tapping his melon. “Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world because he’s got the best brain. He hits the ball well, but there are plenty of guys that hit the ball well. He’s got the best head.”

Conspicuously absent from the discussion was the star-crossed Mickelson. He had retreated to the privacy of the second floor of the clubhouse and was sitting at his locker, motionless, staring into space with his head resting wearily in his hands. Amy came by to give him a kiss, but Phil didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve never seen him like this,” she whispered. “I think he’s in shock.”

Finally, Phil stirred, packed up his belongings, and began the slow trudge home. As he snaked through the locker room, he passed numerous mementos of Winged Foot’s glorious U.S. Open history and the legends who have enjoyed starring roles. There was a reproduction of a 1929 newspaper trumpeting Bobby Jones’s victory. A 1959 clipping celebrated Billy Casper’s heroics. A photograph from 1984 showed a beaming Fuzzy Zoeller holding the winner’s trophy aloft, and there was also a picture of Irwin, signed by the man himself: To Winged Foot G.C. Where my dreams were fulfilled. Mickelson walked past all of this history without even noticing, leaving the locker room deserted but for its ghosts.