ERIN, Wis. — Oh, it would have been a brilliant scene. The six-time U.S. Open runner-up, just minutes after stepping off his private jet, jogging toward the first tee for a late tee time. His shoes still untied, the gallery already in hysterics over his arrival, he’d offer that familiar thumbs-up and knowing grin, then pull driver from his bag and rip that famous butter-cut down the opening fairway.
It never happened. The thunderstorms never developed. The tournament delays never materialized. The jet never landed, carrying Phil Mickelson to his most dramatic U.S. Open entrance, if not also, eventually, his most triumphant.
For the first time since 1993, Mickelson isn’t competing in the tournament that’s been the source of so much heartache during those years. He’s won each of the other majors — the Masters three times; The Open and PGA Championship once apiece.
This one keeps eluding him. This one is nails on his chalkboard, the fly in his soup. A half-dozen times he’s beaten (or at least tied) 154 other players in this event, only to lose to just one.
Mickelson will turn 47 on Friday, and it should be noted that the oldest champion in U.S. Open history was a mere 45. Those who believe past results are a predictor of future performance will infer that Mickelson’s diminishing chances of ever claiming this title vanished when he unselfishly chose his oldest daughter’s high school graduation over a spot in this week’s field.
That would be a severe underestimation of his resolve.
Look, Mickelson will never be the favorite to win this tournament in coming years, but he was rarely, if ever, the favorite before. This is a man who’s carved out a Hall of Fame career — arguably one of the top 10 or 15 golfers to ever play the game — without ever being No. 1 in the world or PGA Tour Player of the Year or tops on the money list.
He bounced back from painful arthritis when it seemed that could ruin his career. He prevailed at Muirfield when it appeared he’d never figure out links golf.
The point is, we can write off Mickelson’s chances, but that’s proved to be a foolish decision before. It might be especially foolish considering the next three venues.
The upcoming U.S. Open rotation will serve as something of reunion tour, playing his greatest hits (and misses). Thirteen years ago, Mickelson was one of only two players to finish his week at Shinnecock Hills under par; he still lost to Retief Goosen. Pebble Beach has yielded four Mickelson victories; alas, none of them have come in the U.S. Open, as he’s finished T-4 and T-16 and missed a cut in three appearances there. Winged Foot might have been the scene of his most crushing blow, in 2006; a wayward drive led to a final-hole double-bogey and agonizing defeat.
Maybe that reunion tour will be more Rolling Stones rockin’ through a three-hour show; maybe it will be Milli Vanilli mouthing through another garbled chorus.
Either way, it’s going to happen. One year from now, Mickelson will return to this event, just as optimistic as he’s been for the previous 23 of ’em. Unlike longtime peer Tiger Woods, who at five years younger appears much closer to the inevitable end of his playing career, the resilient left-hander hasn’t suffered any major injuries that have kept him sidelined for a lengthy time.
He’ll have to contend not only with the window closing on his opportunity but with flat-bellied studs who don’t have things like arthritis and graduations to worry about. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm are half Mickelson’s age, leaving a daunting task for the guy steadily creeping up on senior major eligibility.
It isn’t likely. It might not even be plausible. But he’ll have a chance.
On Thursday morning, Mickelson saw there were no delays at Erin Hills, then texted USGA executive director Mike Davis and officially withdrew from this year’s U.S. Open.
That doesn’t mean opportunity is over, though.
One year from now, Mickelson will stand on the first tee at this event, offer that familiar thumbs-up and knowing grin, then pull driver out of his bag and rip one down the opening fairway. Just because it didn’t happen this week doesn’t mean his fleeting chances to someday win that elusive U.S. Open title are forever gone and buried.