“Here he comes!” shouted a golf fan as Phil Mickelson approached the first tee at Merion Golf Club, outside Philadelphia, on Sunday. “Here he comes!” The crowd roared as Mickelson walked up the fairway; moments later Mickelson’s playing partner on this final round of the U.S. Open, fellow American Hunter Mahan, received, oh, about a third of the applause Mickelson got. “In my line of the work I’m used to that,” said another guy in the crowd. “There’s him, there’s me.”
“Great head of hair Phil,” screamed another guy, in a thick Philly accent, as Mickelson waited to tee off. Mickelson’s locks, indeed, flowed out of his KPMG visor. “Philly loves you, Phil!”
So began one of the great passion plays in all sports: golf fans trying to will Phil Mickelson to a U.S. Open title. Mickelson entered the final round up a stroke, and with Merion torturing the field–like any good U.S. Open course is wont to do–he was in prime position to finally win a title. Mickelson had finished second at the Open five times. And after Mickelson jetted from Philly to San Diego earlier this week to attend his daughter’s eighth grade graduation, before taking a red-eye back to Merion in time for the first round — he shot a bleary-eyed 67, low score of the day — a Mickelson win would be fitting Father’s Day nightcap.
Especially in the Northeast, where Mickelson — a west coaster — is nonetheless extremely popular. Four of his close U.S. Open calls came in New York, in front of rambunctious pro-Mickelson galleries — at Bethpage Black twice, in 2002 and 2009, at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, and at Winged Foot in 2006, when he gave the tournament away on the final hole. During the 2011 Open at Congressional, in the Washington D.C.-area, Mickelson was the crowd favorite, even though he never contended. “All those years he was losing to Tiger, Phil just persevered,” says Rick Hollawell, a lawyer from Philadelphia was was cheering on Mickelson (Mickelson has won three Masters championships and a PGA title). “The way he carries himself – he’s just humble. He’s a graceful leader.”
Mickelson turned 43 Sunday: the Philly crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him about 100 times throughout the day. Mickelson never stops smiling. But if those grins weren’t masking some fatigue at hearing that song over and over, he’s a saint.
So it was all set up for Mickelson. A Mickelson win could have been the greatest sentimental golf story since Jack Nicklaus won the Masters, at 46, back in 1986, with his son as his caddy.
On the first hole … a birdie putt lipped out. Not a good sign. “I can’t believe that ball didn’t go in,” Mickelson said afterward. He couldn’t catch a putting break; he said his stroke felt “fabulous” all day, but the results didn’t back that up. “Hit a good putt on 6,” Mickelson said. “Thought I made that. I thought I made the one on 8. Thought I made the one on nine, man. The one on 11 wasn’t great, but I thought I had a chance on 12. Certainly 16, I thought I made.”
Mickelson lost the lead on the front nine, but gained it back in spectacular fashion: on the par-4 10th, he holed out from 75 yards, giving him an eagle and a one-stoke advantage. Once he saw the ball fall into the hole, Mickelson raised both arms up in the air, and jumped about two inches high — pretty good hops for Mickelson, who will never be confused with the more athletic players on tour. “To see that ball go in, I really thought I was in good position,” Mickelson said. After all, 11, 12, and 13 were prime scoring holes. As Mickelson was walking with his caddy, James “Bones” Mackay, after the 11th hole, one Philly fan looked a bit maniacal. “Bonesy, keep him in it,” he screamed at Mackay. “Keep him focused. Keep him in it!”
But while Great Britain’s Justin Rose, playing two groups in front of Mickelson, made birdie on 12 and 13, Mickelson parred 11 and 12 – and bogeyed the pitch-and-putt hole, the 121-yard par-3 13th. “I hit too much club there,” he said. Despite another bogey on 15, Mickelson still had a chance to draw even on the 16th. Mickelson hit his first shot on the par-4 in the left rough.”Come on Phil,” said a fan. “Do something crazy.” He did: Mickelson somehow got his second shot within 10-feet of the cup. However, he missed an oh-so-makeable birdie putt. After another birdie miss on 17, Mickelson needed to hole out a long chip on 18 to force a playoff. After striking the ball, Mickelson sprinted toward the green, as if he’d catch up to it and guide it into the hole. Instead, the ball rolled right past the cup. Justin Rose is your U.S. Open champ.
Mickelson finished with Jason Day in a tie for second, his sixth time as bridesmaid. “This one’s probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at the tournament altogether,” says Mickelson. “Instead, I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
He’s not alone.