PINEHURST, N.C. – Moments after sinking a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to win the 1999 U.S. Open, Payne Stewart turned to runner-up Phil Mickelson and tried to console him.
“You’ll get yours,” Stewart said reassuringly.
Fifteen years later – after finishing second in the U.S. Open five more times – Mickelson is still waiting.
This week, Mickelson will take another run at the lone major that has eluded him, and he’ll be at the same Pinehurst No. 2 course where he lost the duel with Stewart.
The timing is hardly ideal.
Mickelson, who will turn 44 next Monday, has had the worst first half of a season in his career and reportedly is being investigated by federal authorities for possible insider trading.
“I don’t see him hitting on all cylinders enough to win,” said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, who won the Open twice. “That’s because he hasn’t been playing well, and this is on top of him. I don’t care if he’s innocent – and I really believe he probably is – it’s still weighing on you, it’s in the press and you see it every day.”
Mickelson, one of the most admired players among both fans and players on the PGA Tour, does have his believers.
“He’s been very unlucky in the past,” said Rory McIlroy, the 2011 Open champion who is the betting favorite this year, followed by Adam Scott with Mickelson at No. 3. “He’s hit bad shots at the wrong times. So if it’s not me, I don’t think there’s anyone more deserving.”
Mickelson has come up short in almost every way imaginable. In ’99 Stewart one-putted his last three greens to beat him by a shot. In 2004 a three-putt from 5 feet on the 17th hole handed the title to Retief Goosen. In 2006 he needed only a bogey at No. 18 and drove into the trees. Last year he led almost wire-to-wire before being overtaken by Justin Rose.
Mickelson called 2013 the toughest loss of the six, but he rebounded a month later to record his first win in the British Open, leaving him one trophy away from joining the elite group that has won all four majors: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“I’m fortunate and I’m honored to be part of that long list of great players who have won three of the four,” Mickelson told reporters last month. “But it would mean a lot to me – I would look at myself, my career, which is all I care about, in a whole different light – if I could get that fourth one.”
Even before the insider trading questions arose this had been a tough year for Mickelson. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish in 14 starts while missing three cuts: at the Honda Classic, the Masters and The Players Championship.
“He’s just not mentally sharp,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. “He’s not able to focus as much as he normally does, and he doesn’t have a go-to shot.”
Mickelson’s biggest problem might be on the greens. Last year he was sixth on the tour in putting; this year he’s 106th.
“It’s the short putts that are haunting him,” Miller said. “His putting last year was fantastic for a guy in his 40s. (So) the putting is a big issue, and that will wear you out. You’re playing pretty well and you can’t get that ball in and another guy is getting up-and-in everywhere.”
Mickelson has played two Opens at Pinehurst. After finishing second in 1999 he was 60th in 2005. But with the rough being replaced by wire grass, pine straw and native plants, his shotmaking ability, particularly from around the greens, should serve him well.
Winning would not only give him what some are calling the “Mickel-slam” but might elevate him into the top 10 all time. He has won five majors overall.
“If you look at his wins and his record, the fact he’s left-handed – he’s going to have to rank up there,” ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said.
That doesn’t mean Azinger thinks Mickelson will win this week.
“If you look at Mickelson’s career, when the focus has ever really truly been on Phil, he’s always struggled,” Azinger said.
“When he’s trying to win the U.S. Open or trying to become No. 1 in the world or whatever, it’s always been difficult for him. It seems to never go like he wants.”