Phil implied there would be trouble — and there was

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

Golf is different. In team sports, when those in charge no longer believe you are ineffective, that you’re too old, they put you on waivers or drop you — as the San Francisco Giants did recently with longtime favorites Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval.

But golfers are their own bosses, so to speak. They can go on and on, as long as they are accepted into tournaments and are able to accept the inevitable decline.

It’s what they do, and that’s fine. Until what they do becomes a painful reminder of what they used to do.

There was a sense that Phil Mickelson would have a problem in the U.S. Open. Although not a problem as severe as Thursday on Day 1 at Winged Foot. Phil shot a 9-over-par 79. He was tied for 142nd in a field of 144, next to last.

Then again a few days ago, Mickelson implied there might be trouble ahead.

On Sunday after completion of the Safeway Open, Mickelson was asked, more for acknowledgement than relevance, if he thought he could win the Open. “I just want to be competitive,” he said. Which on Thursday he was for a few holes, starting birdie-birdie.

Then Winged Foot, in the leafy suburbs of New York, tore him apart. Three bogies in a row. Then after a couple of pars, six more bogies and a double bogey. He finished with a 37-42—79.

“I don’t know what to say,” sighed Mickelson. “It was a disappointing day.”

What we can say is that at age 50, Mickelson never will win the Open, the only one of golf’s four major championships he hasn’t won.

What we can say is that even with a short game that borders on brilliance, he’ll never get that missing Open — or get even with Winged Foot, a course that has his number, that has wrecked his dreams.

Even when he was at his best — and having won more than 40 events including five majors, he was at his best for a long while — Phil was not accurate off the tee. But oh, could he chip and putt, and every stroke counts the same whether the ball is going three feet or 300 yards.

There were six second-place finishes in the Open where the rough is high and the fairways narrow. The most infamous was at Winged Foot in 2006, when Mickelson came to the tee of the 72nd hole with the lead.

One thing about Phil, he never backs down. Conservative golf is for wimps. There’s a driver in your bag for a reason. If you hit it crooked, pick up the sand wedge or the pitching wedge. Phil is known as the miracle man for the way he saved shots.

But 14 years ago, there was no saving that Open. And coming in behind Geoff Ogilvy, Mickelson recorded one of his six second-place Open finishes.

A few weeks ago, Mickelson entered a Champions Tour event and won easily. The U.S. Open is not for Champions Tour players, however — it is for younger champions.

Phil does what he chooses, sometimes to the distraction and disgust of officials. In the U.S. Open two years ago at Shinnecock Hills, maybe 125 miles from Winged Foot, Mickelson intentionally hit a moving ball on a green. He somehow escaped disqualification.

There was no such maneuver on Thursday. Mickelson was not in a wild-hare mood. He was soberly candid.

“I drove it poorly,” he said, “and I putted poorly. The course couldn’t be set up any better. It’s a spectacular golf course. Awesome setup, and I thought it was a good opportunity to score low today. I just played terrible.”

According to Jim Litke of the Associated Press, there’s an ad that promises a free driver to someone whose favorite Callaway golfer wins the U.S. Open.

“Come on,” Phil says in the ad, “we all know who it’s going to be. When have I ever let you down at Winged Foot?”

As a matter of fact...