By John Feinstein
In 1975, when Gary Groh won the Hawaiian Open, the first sentence of the story written by the late, great Bob Green for the Associated Press said this: “Arnie lost again.”
Arnold Palmer had contended throughout the week before falling back on Monday (the tournament was rain-delayed) to finish behind Groh and a fast-closing Al Geiberger. As it turned out, Palmer, who was 45 at the time, never won again on the PGA Tour.
It would be easy to say the same about Phil Mickelson after he was the subject of about 90 percent of the attention at this past week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am before fading to third on Sunday behind winner Nick Taylor and a fast-closing Kevin Streelman. “Phil lost again,” might have been the lead for many covering the tournament.
But the fact that Phil was in contention until the closing holes should tell us something: Four months before turning 50, he’s not done. Mickelson is golf’s Dracula—every time you think he’s dead, he rises again. Two weeks ago, he hadn’t been in contention anywhere since winning at Pebble Beach a year earlier. He had played so poorly since Pebble 2019 that in December he failed to make a United States national team (Presidents Cup) for the first time since 1993 and had dropped far enough in the World Ranking that the question of whether he’d be offered or would accept an exemption to play in this year’s U.S. Open was on the table.
Except for this: Two weeks ago, after skipping the Waste Management Phoenix Open for only the second time in 31 years to take a huge—and controversial—appearance fee to play in Saudi Arabia, Mickelson finished T-3. Then, at Pebble Beach, a place where he has won five times, he lingered just off the lead all week before Taylor’s chip-in birdie at the 15th hole Sunday finally—more or less—put Phil away. Mickelson struggled most of the day in the high winds, shooting a two-over-par 74 to finish five strokes behind Taylor and one behind Streelman—after Phil had tied Taylor for the lead two holes into the final round.
The third-place finish moved Mickelson from 72nd in the Official World Golf Ranking to 55th. He needs to be in the top 60 either after the PGA Championship (May 18) or on June 15—just before this year’s Open at Winged Foot.
Earlier in the week, Mickelson had said categorically that he would turn down a special invitation from the USGA if he doesn’t qualify.
“I won’t accept it,” he said at a pre-tournament press conference. “So, I am either going to get into the field on my own, or I’ll have to try to qualify. I won’t take a special exemption.”
This is classic Mickelson. He’s fully aware that many of his fellow Hall of Famers have accepted special exemptions, dating to Ben Hogan in 1966. Jack Nicklaus accepted eight of them. Hale Irwin won the Open at Medinah in 1990 playing on a special exemption. It’s also true that many great players have played in the 36-hole qualifiers, including Palmer—but that was when the USGA didn’t offer him an exemption.
As everyone knows, Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times, and it is the one major title that has eluded him. His most infamous miss came at Winged Foot in 2006, when he stood on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead and a very good chance to win a third straight major. He hit driver off the tee dead left, and then, instead of chipping out to set up a possible up-and-down for par to win or—worst case—make a bogey, he tried to pull off an impossible shot, going for the green. He ended up making a double bogey to lose to Geoff Oglivy by one.
When it was over, Mickelson, always honest, declared, “I am such an idiot.”
Two years ago at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson had a meltdown during the third round, hitting a putt when it was moving on the 13th hole and then admitting he knew he would draw a penalty but didn’t really care because he was trying to make a point about the playing conditions.
Remarkably, the USGA didn’t disqualify him after he admitted to intentionally breaking a rule. Still, Mickelson took another shot last week at the governing body after the USGA and R&A released their Distance Insights Project: “We are the only professional sport in the world that’s governed by a group of amateurs, and that leads to some questionable directions that we go down. I wish that we had people that are involved in the sport professionally to be in charge a little bit more.”
Some think Mickelson made his “I don’t want an exemption” comment because he believes the USGA won’t offer him one.
I disagree. Mickelson has five major titles in addition to the six runner-up finishes in the Open, including the one at Winged Foot. It would be an act of absolute malevolence for the USGA to not offer Mickelson an exemption should he need one. Though I can see some on the executive board sitting on a high horse and saying, “How dare he behave the way he did” (at Shinnecock), I don’t think USGA CEO Mike Davis is that kind of guy.
I also think it will be a moot point. I believe Mickelson will play well enough to earn a spot. Mickelson has been counted out more times than a down-and-out boxer.
Remember, many thought he was never going to win a major after he finished third for a third straight year at the Masters in 2003. At that point, he was 32, rich and had 17 top-10s in majors, but no victories. Then he came from three shots behind on the back nine at Augusta in 2004 by birdieing four of the last eight holes to win. His fifth—and most recent major—came at the Open Championship in 2013, an event most people, Mickelson included, thought he was unlikely to ever win.
He didn’t win again for almost five years after that victory and—again—he was supposed to be done. Except he won in Mexico two years ago and at Pebble Beach last year.
He has been criticized (along with Tiger Woods) for not having a better Ryder Cup record, but he has played on the last 12 American teams and is planning on making it 13 straight at Whistling Straits this fall. His Pebble Beach finish jumped him from 42nd to 21st on the Ryder Cup points list, and you can be sure if he’s anywhere close to the top 20, Steve Stricker will make him a captain’s pick. Jay Haas took him to South Korea in 2015 for the Presidents Cup when he was 29th on the points list.
Mickelson’s also a lock to captain the U.S. team at Bethpage Black in 2024 and is now referred to by younger American players as “our papa bear.”
After he publicly criticized Tom Watson in the aftermath of the Americans’ lopsided loss to Europe at Gleneagles in 2014, many wondered what Mickelson’s Ryder Cup future would be. He ended up playing a leading role on the so-called Ryder Cup Task Force, and then played a key role in the U.S. victory at Hazeltine when he was under more pressure than any player on either team. Because “Phil is Phil,” he then went 0-4 on Jim Furyk’s losing team two years ago in France.
In popularity, Mickelson is the Palmer of his generation to Woods’ Nicklaus. There’s no doubt who the better player is, but Mickelson’s flaws—his near-misses (especially at the U.S. Open) and his tendency to put his foot in his mouth (his one non-Palmer like tendency)—seem to endear him to his fans even more than if he won, won and won.
Though many in the media were critical of his decision to play in Saudi Arabia—a country rife with human-rights violations—for a reported $2 million appearance fee, many of his fans couldn’t care less. They will correctly point out that many top players also took the money to go to Saudi Arabia, and, heck, it’s Phil, so it must be OK.
It is to Taylor’s credit that he hung on Sunday with most of the crowd-pulling for Mickelson. Adam Long did the same thing last year when he played in the final group at the Desert Classic with Mickelson and beat him with a birdie putt on the 18th green.
If Mickelson is still on the bubble to qualify for Winged Foot come April 22—the deadline to apply for a special exemption—it will be fascinating to see what he does. My bet is, it won’t be an issue. Unless someone finds a wooden stake. That’s what will be needed to take Mickelson down.