After the Safeway, Phil gets a last Open chance at Winged Foot

© Adam Cairns via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson knows, as we all know. The tournament this week, the Safeway Open, here in the smoke and haze at Silverado, is a trifle. A warm-up, if you will.

He would love to win it, though being far down the leaderboard after 54 holes, he won’t. That presumably would be acceptable if he would win the one next week, the U.S. Open — which he won’t win, either.

Five majors for Phil: three Masters, one PGA Championship, one British Open. But no U.S. Opens. Tiger’s won all four, Ben Hogan’s won all four, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and of course Jack Nicklaus have won all four. But Mickelson has won just three, as did Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead.

Six seconds for Mickelson in the U.S. Open, the most galling in 2006 at Winged Foot, near New York City, where he had the lead at the final tee of the final round.

Then with a series of baffling, awful shots that resulted in a double bogey, he tumbled to second behind Geoff Ogilvy and sighed almost tearfully, “I am such an idiot.”

True, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, who never had won the U.S. Open nor any regular tour major, had his own opportunity, hitting a mere 7-iron shot into the 72nd green and also making a mess with a double bogey. But Mickelson’s failure always will take precedence. At least to us.

To Phil? Now age 50, he acted the brave warrior. Asked whether that Open memory bothers him, Mickelson said, “No, it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s part of the deal. I’m to the point where I can laugh at it now.”

There was no laughter that Sunday afternoon in 2006. There was merely disbelief. But as they say, time heals. Or at least gives one perspective.

“It didn’t take me that long,” insisted Mickelson when asked when he was able to forget the agony. “I mean, it's not that long. It's just part of playing golf.”

To those who watched the plot unfold, who watched what seemed a march toward history become a detour to defeat, it was a grim part. What was he doing out there?

“You're going to have a lot more failures than successes, but I've had a number of successes that I tend to focus more on,” said Mickelson. “I have selective memory.”

What he remembers all too well is how he played the first three rounds here in Napa. He is at 71-67-70—208, which seems decent until compared with the leading score of 200 shared by James Hahn, Scott Percy and Brian Stuard.

Never mind his numbers, said Phil, he knows what is happening. And what isn’t.

Asked if the three rounds prepared him for Winged Foot, Mickelson quickly blurted, “No, no. This is the worst I've played in the last three months.”

Three months in which he made the cut for the PGA Championship at Harding Park and won a tournament on the Champions Tour.

“It's deceptive,” he said of his play in the Safeway, “because I didn't make a bogey, but I didn't drive it well. I didn't chip it well and I didn't putt well. I turned a 64 into a 70, and I've got some work to do.”

You figure he’ll be overmatched at Winged Foot, which 14 years ago in the Open ruined his thinking and his ball striking.

“Heading into this week or the last three, four weeks,” Mickelson said, “I was playing very well. So hopefully it's not far away. I played okay Friday but still not quite hitting it the way I have been, so I've got some work to do. I'm not discouraged because I'm fresh and I'm willing to work.”

Maybe this will be Phil’s last hurrah at an Open. Certainly it will be at his nemesis Winged Foot.

“I would like to at least be competitive, you know, and give myself a reasonable chance,” he said. “I drove it very poorly all week at Winged Foot in '06, and my short game was phenomenal. It was the best short game week of my career. I need to strike it better. And I felt like I have been striking it better.

“I think I can be competitive and that's what I would like to do, is have one or two more good chances at it.”

You might say Winged Foot owes him one.