By John Feinstein
In February 1993, Tom Kite won twice on the PGA Tour: first at the Bob Hope Desert Classic and then two weeks later at the Nissan Los Angeles Open. The victory at Riviera was his 19th—and last—on tour.
“It never occurred to me that Los Angeles would be my last win,” Kite said, years later. “When you’ve just won, you’re playing great and there’s no reason to think you aren’t going to win again. But at some point, it doesn’t happen. There’s just no way to see it coming.”
On July 21, 2013, Phil Mickelson played arguably the greatest high-stakes round of his Hall-of-Fame career, shooting 66 at Muirfield Golf Links to come from behind and win the Open Championship—the major he had long thought was the one he was least likely to win. It was his fifth major title, his 42nd victory on the PGA Tour, and there was absolutely no reason to believe at that moment that there wouldn’t be more to come.
After all, he had almost won the U.S. Open at Merion a month earlier, finishing second to Justin Rose, and he’d won wire-to-wire at Phoenix early in the year after an opening-round 60. Mickelson was 43 and there were lots of wins to come.
Four-and-a-half years later, his victory totals are the same: 5 and 42. On Sunday, he finished tied for second place in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. It was the sixth time since that historic day at Muirfield that he had finished alone or in a share of second—including runner-ups in three other majors (2014 PGA to Rory McIlroy, 2015 Masters to Jordan Spieth and 2016 Open at Troon to Henrik Stenson in their remarkable two-man Sunday shootout).
Clearly, at 47, Mickelson can still play. He can hit it long enough, and his short game is often a sight to behold, filled with all his quirky, unique shots. His mantra, repeated almost daily it would seem, is, “I still believe I have a lot of good golf left in me.”
Last year was the first time since the win at Muirfield that he didn’t have at least one runner-up finish. His year in the majors was abysmal: a tie for 22nd at Augusta and missed cuts at the Open Championship and the PGA. He skipped the U.S. Open to be at his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation.
Once again, the whispers began: Is Phil done? Mickelson has heard them before—often. For a long time he heard that he was destined to be just another rich golfer with a lot of endorsements, but no major titles.
Then came his breakthrough at the 2004 Masters when he was 33—the same age Tom Watson was when he won the last of his eight majors.
He heard them again after his mental meltdown on the 18th hole at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open. Few players had ever come back from that sort of disaster to win another major. Mickelson won the Masters for a third time in 2010 and then won at Muirfield three years later.
In the summer of 2015, as he struggled week-to-week trying to make the Presidents Cup team on points, the whispers were there again. He finished 30th on the points list, but Jay Haas skipped over 18 players on the list to make him a captain’s pick for the simple reason that he was Phil Mickelson. There were very few complaints, and his 3-0-1 performance proved Haas’ faith in him was warranted.
But what would happen the next year if he was way down the Ryder Cup points list? Mickelson had been the driving force behind the so-called, “Task Force,” that had named Davis Love III the U.S. captain for a second time. Would Love be left in the awkward position of having to pick Mickelson over players who had clearly out-played him? The Ryder Cup is very serious business, quite different than the Presidents Cup, which is about one step above hit-and-giggle golf for the U.S. nowadays.
Mickelson removed any doubt early with six top-five finishes before the end of July, the last of his three second-places coming in the Troon shootout. He finished third on the points list and went 2-1-1 at Hazeltine National during the memorable American team win.
Then came the disappointing 2017 season. Of course following Mickelson has always been a roller-coaster ride: year-to-year; week-to-week; hole-to-hole. He’s heard the whispers repeatedly and always found a way to bounce back one more time.
This season has gotten off to an encouraging start with a T-3 last October in Napa; a T-5 two weeks ago at Phoenix and Sunday’s T-2 at Pebble Beach, topped off by Sunday’s five-under-par 67.
Mickelson is always relentlessly upbeat, and Sunday was no different. “I had a great week,” he said. “I would have liked to have played a little better early today, but I got myself to the point of feeling a little nervous with the birdies at 14, 16 and 17, which is a good feeling. I’m really looking forward to [this coming week at] Riviera.”
He’s won twice at Riviera and been in contention there more often than not. Mickelson would love to win this week if only to get rid of the sentence that begins, “he has not won since 2013 … ” Of course, winning again would be nice but it isn’t necessarily his goal.
“At this point in my career, I don’t have many goals left,” he said last year. “Obviously, I want to win the U.S. Open, that’s one. And I want to play on the national teams at least through the 2020 Ryder Cup.” He paused and added: “I will play the Ryder Cup in Paris and at Whistling Straits. I’m sure I’ll do that.”
Mickelson has played on every American team in the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup since 1994—23 straight appearances. As long as he continues to play the way he has so far this season, or baring injury, he’s essentially a lock for Paris—if not on points then as one of Jim Furyk’s captain’s picks.
Winning the U.S. Open, after six career runner-up finishes, presents a different sort of challenge. You can’t be picked, you can’t finish in the top eight on a points list. You have to beat the entire field. The U.S. Open is at Shinnecock Hills this year. The last time it was played there in 2004, Mickelson finished second to Retief Goosen. There are memories, for sure from that Sunday finish, ones that he could dwell on or that could fuel him. That’s all up to him.
Mickelson’s birthday always falls at some point during U.S. Open week. This year it will be on Saturday. If he can “play some good golf,” for four days on the eastern end of Long Island he might finally get the belated birthday present he’s craved for years.
And if that was his last win, he would certainly walk away with a smile on his face.