How the Tiger-Phil dynamic could have flipped at Winged Foot — but didn’t

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The situation is being relived again, with all the gory details. The wayward drive at the 72nd hole. The unwise decision to go for the green. The poor approach that couldn’t even help salvage a bogey.

One of Phil Mickelson‘s toughest defeats has even more meaning all these years later as the U.S. Open returns to Winged Foot, site of his final-hole implosion in 2006.

It was a great opportunity for Mickelson to win the only major he has yet to claim, and it can be argued that it ranks among the game’s greatest meltdowns.

But it also offered a rare chance to do something rarely done: inflict injury to Tiger Woods when he was down.

Aside from Woods’ myriad injury issues later in his career, he likely was never as vulnerable as he was that week in 2006 at venerable Winged Foot, which will host the U.S. Open for a sixth time. Each previous trip has left lasting memories.

There was Bobby Jones’ 36-hole playoff victory in 1929. The first of two U.S. Opens for one of the game’s most underrated players, Billy Casper, in 1959. The “Massacre at Winged Foot” when Hale Irwin won in 1974 at 7 over par. Greg Norman‘s playoff loss to Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984.

And, of course, Geoff Ogilvy‘s 2006 win when both Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie double-bogeyed the final hole to lose by one.

For Mickelson, a huge opening closed. It was not just a chance to win the U.S. Open, it was also a chance to surpass Tiger. Not in the world rankings. Not in career victories. Not in majors. It was a chance to be the top dog and leave the Big Cat, for once, chasing.

A victory at Winged Foot would have meant three straight major championships for Mickelson, a feat accomplished just three times in the modern era, once by Woods six years earlier. It would have flipped the script, changed the narrative. Instead of Tiger chasing history, it would have been Tiger chasing Phil.

Tiger had won four majors in a row in 2000-01, known as the Tiger Slam. A Mickel-Slam had a different kind of ring to it, but Phil didn’t care how it sounded.

Perhaps more subtly, a certain sense of satisfaction would have been in order. For a good part of their careers, Woods viewed Mickelson as an annoying gnat on his Nike shirt, to be flicked away with little regard. He made a habit of dismissing Phil as effortlessly as knocking the dirt out of his spikes.

As all of this drama unfolded at Winged Foot, Woods was but a footnote. He was mourning the loss of his father, Earl, who had died on May 3 of that year, and arrived at Winged Foot unprepared, missing the cut for the first time in a major championship as a pro. His thoughts were a long way from the suburban New York course, and for one of the rare times in Woods’ historic career, the eyes of the golf world were not focused on him.

“I could have told you mostly before we teed off on Thursday that it was going to be tough,” said Steve Williams, Woods’ caddie at the time. “Making the cut was going to be tough. I would generally spend the weekend before a major with him, and his practice was certainly not great. His form was nowhere near where it needed to be to win a U.S. Open.

“Tiger was remarkable in that he won so many of his tournaments without his best form. But there, you have to have your A-game. And a lot of times he won with less than that. But there, and with the difficulty of the course, he didn’t have it.”

Mickelson had the stage to himself and stumbled into the orchestra pit. He crouched on the 18th green, a crumpled bundle of yellow short-sleeved shirt, black hat and gray slacks. He was embarrassed, in pain — and it was all self-inflicted.

Ogilvy was the beneficiary, his final-round 2-over 72 seemingly not enough when he finished. The Australian had never won a major before and would never win a major again — and wouldn’t finish top five in another U.S. Open.

When Ogilvy was making a 6-footer on the final green for a fourth consecutive par, he couldn’t have had an inkling that an hour later he’d be holding the U.S. Open trophy, with Mickelson at the ceremony, still down for the count.

“I’ll tell you what,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said as he watched the carnage unfold, “Ben Hogan has officially rolled over in his grave.”

A par would have won it for Mickelson; a bogey would have meant an 18-hole playoff the next day with Ogilvy. And who do you think would have been favored in that scenario? Instead, Mickelson’s double-bogey 6 cost him the only major championship he has never won.

With the win, Mickelson would have joined Hogan (1953) and Woods (2000) as the only players in the modern era to win three consecutive major championships. Not even the great Jack Nicklaus accomplished that feat. Nor Arnold Palmer. Nor Sam Snead or Byron Nelson. Nor Tom Watson or Lee Trevino or Gary Player.

And with such a victory, Mickelson would have headed to The Open at Royal Liverpool on the cusp of the unthinkable: matching Tiger’s feat of holding all four major championships at the same time. But all that changed with a series of decisions that still boggles the mind. Decisions that are discussed and debated to this day.

“I still am in shock after I did that,” Mickelson said later to a roomful of reporters who were just as dazed. “I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I couldn’t par the last hole. It really stings.”

A month later, when Mickelson showed up early to practice at Royal Liverpool, he wasn’t trying to hide the pain.

“Well, I’m not going to ever forget that,” he said. “I don’t think many people who watched it probably won’t either, but for me, I won’t ever forget that.”

It would be impossible.

The end was swift and cruel. Mickelson stayed in the scoring room for a good while, consoled by his wife, Amy, and still trying to make sense of it all. Amy would later say he was in a trance. Truth be told, Mickelson had not played all that well during the final round. He hit just two fairways. Holding the lead had been a minor miracle — although it was typically the way Mickelson played the game. It is why his former longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, still says that while it was a crushing loss, it wasn’t the most crushing loss in a Mickelson career filled with them.

“At least not to the level you might imagine, because you know what? It’s a 72-hole tournament,” Mackay said. “And it’s a hard hole. It’s pretty easy to say you make a 4 here and you win the U.S. Open. It’s not that simple. You’re playing a 460-yard par-4, and he was having trouble with his ball- striking that day. There you go. You have to play them all.”

Mickelson’s tie for second — Montgomerie also blew a great chance to get into a playoff when he made a mess of the final hole, missing the green with a 7-iron — marked the 21st time to that point he had finished seventh or better in a major. And his Masters victory two months earlier was not making him feel better. Not in any way.

There were other close calls, but those defeats were nothing like Winged Foot.

“This one hurts more than any [other] tournament because I had it won,” he said. “I had it in my grasp and just let it go.”

Just over two years earlier, Mickelson had captured that elusive first major, starting a green-jacket-sharing run with Woods that seemingly was following in the tradition of the greatest players to come before them.

And even though Tiger would win two majors in 2005 — his first since 2002 — it was Phil who bagged the last one of the year at the PGA Championship. When he added the Masters in 2006 — denying Woods a green jacket he dearly coveted — the two players had combined to win four of the last nine majors.

When Woods won the Masters in 2005 — outlasting Chris DiMarco in a playoff after squandering a two-shot lead with two holes to go — he paid tribute to his father. It was one of the rare times when Woods revealed a human side. Earl Woods had not been able to make it to the tournament due to illness.

“This one’s for Dad,” Woods said. “He’s struggling. That’s why it meant so much for me to be able to win this tournament, maybe give him a little hope, a little more fire to keep fighting.”

Woods won The Open later that year at St. Andrews for his 10th major title, and that was followed by Mickelson’s PGA title at Baltusrol. And when they arrived at Augusta the following spring, Woods’ dad was again on his mind as Phil prevailed.

It was his second consecutive major and third in the last nine, and Woods was there to put the green jacket on him, frustrated in his own inability to get it done, especially knowing that his dad was near death.

“I’ve lost tournaments before and I’ve been through some tough defeats over the years, but nothing like that, because I knew my dad would never live to see another major championship,” Woods said several years later. “At the time, going into that final round on the back nine, I pressed and I tried to make putts instead of just allowing it to happen. I tried to force it.

“I know he was at home watching, and I just really wanted to have him be a part of one last major championship victory. And I didn’t get it done.”

All of that set the stage for Winged Foot, where Woods arrived rusty, having not played since the Masters. It had been less than six weeks since Earl died, and Woods understandably skipped tournaments along the way, electing to show up at the U.S. Open without much preparation.

“I’m here to compete and play and try to win this championship,” he said. “I know that dad would still want me to grind it and give it my best, and that’s what I always do. That’s what I will certainly try to do this week.”

But Woods’ heart — and game — was clearly not up to the task. If ever he was exposed, this was the time. It was not the same Tiger, by a mile. He bogeyed his first three holes, hit just three fairways for the round and did well to shoot a 6-over 76. The drive and the ability to focus and block out distractions were woefully missing.

The following day, he double-bogeyed his fifth hole and the typical fight was gone. He shot another 76 to miss the cut by three strokes, his first weekend off at a major since turning pro in 1996, breaking a streak of 36 made cuts. Tiger was hurting, understandably so. And Phil was in position to pounce, to sit atop the golf world with a third straight major.

But with Woods out of the picture, Mickelson was unable to deliver. At a time when Tiger would have stepped on necks to get the trophy, Phil could only sheepishly play that final hole with so much at stake, leading to that trance-like daze. It was his fourth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open (he would finish second on two more occasions), but more important, he had blown a golden opportunity for that third straight major. It would take another four years before he’d win major No. 4.

Making matter worse?

Woods would go on to win that Open at Royal Liverpool and then the PGA Championship at Medinah. Instead of Phil reigning with three straight majors, it was Tiger raining on Phil’s stalled parade.

“I am such an idiot,” Mickelson had said — words that would linger for a long time.

Golf

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