If you like Phil Mickelson, and most of us in the golf world do, it’s hard to talk about the affable Hall of Famer this time of year.
Mickelson has had a fantastic career, and unlike his most compared contemporary, Tiger Woods, remains upright and competitive now into his mid-40s (he’ll turn 46 on Thursday). But the US Open remains the jewel in his Major crown that hasn’t been obtained, and the fact that he’s finished second six different times, often in disastrous fashion, make Mickelson a story line this time of year, like it nor not.
It’s been 17 years since the first time he finished second, three years since the last time, and he enters the tournament this season playing as well as anyone, having taken second place at last week’s St. Jude’s Classic, finishing 10-under.
He’s already put together a better 2016 than his entire 2015, winning more prize money ($2.6 million), more second-place finishes (2), more top 10 finishes (5) and more top 25 finishes (9). After falling out of the top 20 in the Official World Golf Rankings for an extended period in 2015, he’s returned to No. 17 and is 15th in the FedEx Cup rankings.
Jack Nicklaus finished second at a Major 19 times in his career, but he also won 18 other times. He was the runner-up at The Open Championship seven times between 1964 and 1979, but he also won it three times, making those other seven times just a footnote for blogs like this one.
J.H. Taylor, one of the pioneers of modern golf, first finished second at The Open in 1896. The last time he finished second was 21 years later. TWENTY-ONE! In 1917. He finished second six times. In between his first and last runner-up slots, an entire World War was fought; the Wright Brothers flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk, Sigmund Freud wrote a book that made every man leery of his own mother; Australia became a commonwealth; Albert Einstein busted out the Theory of Relativity; Henry Ford rolled out the Model T; plastic was invented; The Titanic went under; Oreos came out; and a German U-Boat sunk the Lusitania. Of course, like Nicklaus, Taylor also won the event, quite a bit in fact, being named champion five times between 1894 and 1913.
For Mickelson, the streak began in 1999 when he was 29 years old and fell a stroke short of Payne Stewart, who tragically died four months later in a plane crash. There was no choke here; Stewart was up a stroke after 54 holes and won by the same margin. Mickelson tied for the lead at even par with a birdie on No. 16, but Stewart’s birdie on 17 was the deciding factor.
The same could be said in 2002 – there was no choke, simply running into the buzzsaw known as Tiger Woods, who was 26 at the time and nigh unstoppable, having already won the Masters that year. Mickelson trailed Woods by five strokes entering Sunday and was able to chip away two strokes to finish at even par for the tournament.
The trouble started in 2004, but Mickelson was coming off a Masters championship – the first Major of his win – so it was forgivable that the pressure would get to him late. He was 2 strokes behind Retief Goosen through 54 holes, and still 2 strokes short through 13 holes after an untimely bogey. Goosen bogeyed No. 14 while Mickelson birdied 13, 15, and 16 to forge a tie at -4 with two holes to go. While never in the lead, Mickelson did come crashing down with a double bogey on No. 17 that gave Goosen the title. The fail came in the fact that he three-putted from five feet out.
Two years later at Winged Foot, trouble returned for Mickleson as he tried to chase down Geoff Ogilvy. Both he and Colin Montgomerie needed a par on the final hole to win or a bogey to tie Ogilvy for a playoff. Mickelson was gunning for a third straight Major after winning the 2003 PGA Championship and the 2004 Masters, but he hit the hospitality tent first, and a tree second, before landing in a bunker and double-bogeying his way into yet another tie for second.
2009 wasn’t the most agonizing of them, but it might have been the one the public wanted Mickelson to win most, as he had announced it would be his last tournament for a while after revealing his wife Amy had breast cancer. An eagle on 13 tied him with Lucas Glover for the lead, but bogeys on 15 and 17 took him out of contention. It also broke the record for most second-place finishes at the US Open which he had previously shared with Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus.
2013 was the real doozy as Mickelson led after 54 holes by a stroke, and immediately bogeyed two of the first five holes. He got back into a tie for the lead with a fantastic eagle on No. 10, then staggered down the stretch with three bogeys on the last five holes to fall two strokes behind winner Justin Rose.
Will 2016 be his year to finally shine?