A mat­ter of course

Pebble gives Mick­el­son his last, best chance at elu­sive U.S. Open ti­tle

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Eddie Pells

There was the hos­pi­tal­ity tent at Winged Foot.

There was Payne and the pager at Pine­hurst.

There was a near-miss at Me­rion.

To list all of Phil Mick­el­son’s close calls, melt­downs and short­falls at the U.S. Open is to peer into a par­tic­u­larly tor­tured chap­ter of the his­tory of one of golf’s greatest cham­pi­ons.

More up­lift­ing are the sto­ries from Mick­el­son’s five tour vic­to­ries at Pebble Beach — in­clud­ing one ear­lier this year.

It’s what makes Mick­el­son’s trip next week to Pebble all that much more tan­ta­liz­ing. It’s his chance to fi­nally win the tour­na­ment he’s wanted so badly — maybe too badly — at a course teem­ing with his­tory and good vibes for not only him­self, but for his fam­ily and for the game itself. It’s a week dur­ing which the five-time ma­jor win­ner, who turns 49 on the day of the fi­nal round, will come face to face with what could be his last, best chance to win the U.S. Open.

And be­come the sixth player to com­plete the ca­reer Grand Slam.

“No,” Mick­el­son said when asked if he felt pres­sure to cap­ture the fi­nal leg of the slam in or­der to en­hance his legacy. “It’s just that it would be pretty spe­cial to be part of the elite play­ers that have won all four. To me, that’s the sign of a com­plete game.”

It’s hard to argue Mick­el­son hasn’t proven he has the game to win a U.S. Open. He has played in 25 of them as a pro, fin­ished in the top 10 in 10, and fin­ished run­ner-up in six. And yet, the defin­ing trait of America’s na­tional cham­pi­onship is that it de­liv­ers the ul­ti­mate ex­am­i­na­tion of ev­ery part of a player’s game. That in­cludes the men­tal and emo­tional ap­proach — and, it fol­lows that a big piece of that puz­zle is the abil­ity to stay cool and make good de­ci­sions when the lights are the bright­est.

To many, Mick­el­son’s putt-sweeping de­ba­cle at Shin­necock last June, where he fin­ished 48th, was a cul­mi­na­tion of a quar­ter-cen­tury’s worth of frus­tra­tion from a player fed up with the va­garies of the U.S. OPEN TV: Thurs­day-Fri­day, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (FS1), 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (FOX); Satur­day, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (FOX);

Sun­day, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (FOX).

USGA’s peren­nial course-setup con­tro­ver­sies, to say noth­ing of the long, star-crossed his­tory he has writ­ten for him­self in the ma­jor he has val­ued the most.

But if there was a sin­gle 20-minute stretch that de­fines Mick­el­son at the U.S. Open, it would be the 18th hole at Winged Foot in 2006. He car­ried a one-shot lead into fi­nal hole. His driver — Mick­el­son hit only two fair­ways the fi­nal round — bounced off a hos­pi­tal­ity tent, well left of the fair­way and be­hind a pha­lanx of trees that blocked his path to the green. In­stead of punch­ing out, try­ing to save par for the win or bo­gey for a play­off, he went for it. He dis­missed the odds and chose against mak­ing what looked like the “smart” play, much the way he has through­out a ca­reer of all-or-noth­ing risk tak­ing that has paid off as of­ten as not.

The ball hit a tree and barely went 25 yards. Mick­el­son made dou­ble bo­gey and lost by one.

“I still am in shock that I did that. I just can’t be­lieve that I did that,” Mick­el­son said after­ward. “I am such an id­iot.”

There were close calls both be­fore and af­ter that blow-up, start­ing in 1999 at Pine­hurst, when Mick­el­son brought a pager with him in case his ex­pect­ing wife, Amy, went into la­bor with the cou­ple’s first child, Amanda. She didn’t. Mick­el­son played all four rounds. His loss to Payne Ste­wart af­ter Ste­wart made and Mick­el­son missed clutch putts on the fi­nal three holes didn’t feel all that dev­as­tat­ing at the time. Though the loss kept him with­out a ma­jor ti­tle, he was 29: Mick­el­son was on the verge of be­com­ing a fa­ther.

Fa­ther Time was only a faint ap­pari­tion. Mick­el­son’s most re­cent se­cond-place fin­ish — in fact, his last show­ing in the top 25 at the U.S. Open — came in 2013 at Me­rion. He car­ried the out­right lead into the fi­nal day for the first time, but played the last six holes in 3 over in an even­tual loss to Justin Rose.

He has three Masters ti­tles, one Bri­tish Open, one PGA Cham­pi­onship and noth­ing to show from the U.S. Open but a sil­ver medal — a record six of them.

Nobody with ac­cess to a calendar will miss the irony in that next year, on the same week Mick­el­son turns 50 and be­comes el­i­gi­ble for the se­nior tour, the U.S. Open will re­turn to Winged Foot.

But first Pebble Beach.

Nobody has won more tro­phies at the tour­na­ment known in its for­ma­tive years simply as the Bing Crosby Clam­bake. And if Mick­el­son feels at home on the shores of the Mon­terey Penin­sula, it makes sense. His mother’s fa­ther, Al San­tos, grew up in the area, and even had a cad­dy­ing gig at Pebble when it opened 100 years ago, in 1919. Mick­el­son marks his ball with the 1900 sil­ver dol­lar his grand­fa­ther kept in his pocket to re­mind him that he wasn’t poor.

Mick­el­son made his pro de­but in the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he opened with a 68 and was two out of the lead, but shot 81 on Fri­day to miss the cut. Af­ter his fifth vic­tory there in Fe­bru­ary, a win that marked No. 44 for his ca­reer, Mick­el­son was asked about his his­tory, and his fu­ture, at the course.

“I re­ally don’t think there’s any car­ry­over from here to the U.S. Open. It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent golf course,” he said, a nod to the dry-and-crispy con­di­tions in June, to say noth­ing of what the USGA usu­ally does to its U.S. Open lay­outs. “I just re­ally en­joy this place. I seem to play some of my best golf here and that’s prob­a­bly about it.”

And so, the questions re­main: Can he play his best golf there once again?

And if so, will it be enough to win a cham­pi­onship that has cru­elly un­cov­ered ev­ery flaw in his game, and turned him into Patient No. 1 on the day af­ter Fa­ther’s Day for ev­ery arm­chair psy­chol­o­gist or Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back who ever put a tee in the ground?

If he does win it, will it change Mick­el­son’s place in golf his­tory? He’s al­ready in good com­pany, one of 12 play­ers, in­clud­ing Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Wat­son and By­ron Nel­son, to win three of the four legs of the modern slam. (Sam Snead is the only other whose miss­ing ti­tle is the U.S. Open).

But there’s a chance Mick­el­son could find him­self in even bet­ter com­pany — as in, the com­pany of the ca­reer Grand Slam win­ners: Gene Sarazen, Ben Ho­gan, Gary Player, Jack Nick­laus and Tiger Woods.

At least one more good chance.

ERIC RISBERG/AP

Hall of Famer Phil Mick­el­son, who turns 49 in seven days, has five ca­reer vic­to­ries at Pebble Beach. He won there ear­lier this sea­son.

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