Merion broke many players’ hearts, but none worse than Phil Mickelson’s.
Sunday was supposed to be Phil Mickelson’s day. It was his 43rd birthday. It was Father’s Day, and Mickelson had taken a cross-country flight so he could attend his daughter’s 8th grade graduation on the eve of the U.S. Open.
All the stars seemed aligned for Mickelson to win his first U.S. Open after having been the runner-up a remarkable five times.
Make it six.
Mickelson shot a 4-over-par 74 while Justin Rose calmly played the extremely challenging Merion Golf Club East Course in even-par 70, leaving Rose with his first major tournament victory and Mickelson with another severe case of heartbreak.
“This is tough to swallow after coming so close,” Mickelson said. “This was my best chance of all of them. I had a golf course I really liked. This was as good an opportunity as you could ask for.
“It really hurts.”
Mickelson entered the final round as the only player under par. But he had history working against him. In the previous four U.S. Opens held at Merion, the leader after three rounds did not win the tournament. Make it 5 for 5. Mickelson finished two shots behind Rose, tied for second with Jason Day, who also was the runner-up in 2011when Rory McIlroy won at Congressional Country Club.
Although Mickelson was the clear fan favorite – there were atypical golf crowd chants of “Let’s go, Phil!” before his desperation chip for birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff – Rose’s story should not be lost in narrative of the Mickelson tragedy.
While golfers were falling by the wayside all over Merion, Rose was maintaining his position. He started the day at 1-over-par for the tournament and never dropped more than one stroke off that pace.
After a bogey on the third hole, Rose made a birdie on the fourth hole. A bogey on the fifth was followed by birdies on the sixth and seventh holes, putting him at even-par. Rose reached as low as 1-under after consecutive birdies on the 12th and 13th holes, and then played the daunting final five holes in 2-over-par, making pars on the 17th and 18th holes.
By contrast, Hunter Mahan, who was in contention almost the entire day and held the lead at one point, dropped to 5-over-par, both for Sunday and the tournament, by playing the final five holes in 4-over.
Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel, who started the day tied with Mahan, one stroke behind Mickelson, had their championship hopes dashed by Merion long before reaching the final stretch of holes. Stricker shot 6-over for the day and the tournament; Schwartzel shot 8-over for the day and tournament. Luke Donald and Billy Horschel, who started Sunday tied with Rose, found themselves out of contention before they reached the final stretch of holes.
Jason Dufner and Ernie Els, who somehow tamed Merion with rounds of 3-under and 1-under, respectively, finished approximately two hours before the final group, yet watched themselves move up the leaderboard as golfers on the course struggled with the difficult final holes and their own nerves. Els and Dufner finished tied with Horschel and Mahan for fourth place at 5-over.
The survivor at the end was Rose. After a confident par on the 17th hole, he stepped up to the 18th tee and drilled a drive straight down the middle.
“When I came over the hill and saw my ball laying in the middle of the fairway, I thought, “This is my moment.’”
Rose noted that he wasn’t too far from where Ben Hogan hit his famous 1-iron in to the 18th green to force a playoff at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, a shot immortalized in a picture Rose says he’s seen 100 times. He hit his next shot to the back of the green, almost made his birdie putt and then tapped in for par.
After tapping in, Rose looked toward the sky.
“I couldn’t help but look up to the heavens and think my old dad, Ken, had something to do with it.”
Rose’s father, Ken, died of cancer in 2002 at age 57. He saw his son break onto the international golf scene as a teenager, finishing fourth at the 1998 British Open. But Rose wasn’t able to break through and win a major tournament until 11 years after his father’s death.
But Rose’s victory wasn’t quite wrapped up when he looked toward the sky. Mickelson was still within range, having made par on the 16th and 17th holes.
As Mickelson stepped to the 18th tee, he had a difficult challenge. The 18th hole, with just 11 birdies all week, ranked as the most difficult hole on the course. Mickelson’s drive landed in the rough, which just about ended his chances.
Mickelson had holed out from the fairway rough on the 10th hole for an eagle, putting him back into the lead and sending a jolt of electricity through the crowd. But Mickelson did not break par on another hole the rest of the way, and he certainly wasn’t going to eagle lengthy No. 18 from the fairway rough. His shot was short of the green and, despite the crowd urging him on, his desperation chip shot rolled far past the hole.
Rose, 32, picked up his first major title in his 37th major tournament. He is the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open in 43 years. Rose, who won the AT&T National at Aronomink in 2010, thanked the fans for their support and said, “Philly has been my town.”
In truth, however, Philly was supposed to be Mickelson’s town this week. Instead, it was the scene of more U.S. Open heartbreak.
But even the heartbreak couldn’t discourage Mickelson from displaying the grace, class and humility that has made him a fan favorite.
“The people have been fabulous,” Mickelson said. “The way the community has wanted this and supports this tournament, (is) more than just about any place we’ve ever been.
“It’s great the way the city of Philadelphia has supported this tournament. I hope we have a chance to come back.”
Without any players breaking par for the tournament, Merion certainly answered any questions about whether it was challenging enough for today’s golfers and their enhanced equipment. There should not be another 32-year drought before the U.S. Open returns to Merion.
And if it does, Mickelson must hope he still isn’t striving for his first U.S. Open championship.