This was the Phil Mickelson we know and dread, the swashbuckling knucklehead who never saw a sensible shot he couldn’t pass up for an impossible one.
On days like Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open, you stare with your jaw hanging open as Mickelson makes bad decision after bad decision, and you find yourself praying that his caddie will grab him by the collar and slap some sense into him. You realize at the same time that’s not going to happen, as trying to talk sense to Mickelson is like trying to talk vegetarianism to a shark.
Not that we really want him to be any different. Good, sensible, risk-averse golf is a wonderful concept that works for the majority of the clones on the PGA Tour. And if Mr. Phil played more conservatively, he might have won more majors than the four that he has.
He’d certainly be in better shape to contend at Pebble Beach. His bad decisions and an inability to sink a putt left him five strokes behind the clubhouse leaders. Had he just played the sensible shot on two occasions, he’d probably be just three strokes back.
Lefty’s hardly out of it. Nobody is going to run away a hide at Pebble. The last person to do that was Tiger Woods 10 years ago, and that Tiger Woods no longer exists.
But Lefty is 40 years old and the chances of him winning his first U.S. Open are not getting better with the passage of time. Most of the golfers failed to break par Thursday. There’s still plenty of time to make up ground.
You just don’t want to give shots away, and that’s something Mickelson can do with a flair that nobody else can. And if he didn’t give strokes away, he wouldn’t be Lefty and we wouldn’t care enough about him to wonder what in the name of 60-degree lob wedges he’s thinking when he tries to pull off a shot that nobody has ever hit before. He wouldn’t be the most popular golfer on Tour. He wouldn’t be a loveable knucklehead.
The reason Lefty is so popular is that he’s so daring, often foolishly so. Lots of golfers can hit trick shots. Mickelson hits them in the most pressurized situations in the game. If caution dictates hitting a wood, he hits driver. If the situation says play for bogey, he tries to hit it through a culvert, over a television tower, around a beer tent and onto a postage-stamp green.
He lost the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot on the final hole because he couldn’t hit an easy 3-wood off the tee, and then couldn’t bring himself to play for bogey and a playoff, and instead made double bogey and second place.
He tried the same sort of heroic nonsense on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach on Thursday, and had the same kind of non-heroic result. The 18th, as everyone knows, hangs on the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean and is the most spectacular closing hole in golf. It’s also one of the most dangerous.
Lefty started out well, aiming right and staying away from the ocean. When he ended up behind two trees, the wise move was to play into the fairway, then onto the green and hope for a one-putt birdie on the par-5 hole. Instead, Mickelson aimed straight at the ocean and hit what he was aiming at. His intention was to work a big old hook around the trees, but the ball wouldn’t cooperate and instead crashed into the stone retaining wall and ricocheted halfway to Hawaii.
That put him at 3 over, and another dumb play on No. 4 — his 13th hole — left him at 4-over par for the round.
Par is a great score at the Open, so every other player on the course is hoping to make as many of them as possible. Even Woods plays to take bogey out of the equation whenever he can, particularly in an early round when a tournament can’t be won but can be lost.
Mickelson will never accept that, which is why he’s so beloved. When he pulls off the miracle, we marvel at the "Wow!" factor he brings to the game. When he tries and fails, as he did Thursday, we are equally impressed with the "D’oh!" factor he also brings.
He has won three Masters and a PGA Championship, so he can do whatever he wants and no one can criticize him for not being a champion. But he’d dearly like to win an Open, and his myriad fans share that desire.
Pebble Beach would be a great place to do it, and it can still happen. But not if the D’ohs outnumber the Wows.