With failure, Mickelson wins affection of fans

June 19, 2006|By RICK MAESE

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Mamaroneck, N.Y.-- --Phil Mickelson carries several clubs in his bag: He has that humble smile, those words that drip with sincerity, and of course, the difficult struggle that is so painfully evident. Everything about him neatly lends itself to undeniable golf martyrdom.

"[I] had it right there in my hand, man," Mickelson said. "It was right there and I let it go. I just cannot believe I did that."

Already a fan favorite, blowing yesterday's U.S. Open in such fantastic fashion will hardly be a setback for one of the game's most beloved players.

For just about any other athlete in any other sport, choking on the verge of a championship would open the door for criticism, second-guessing, even ridicule. But Mickelson isn't most athletes and golf isn't most sports. Not only will Mickelson survive yesterday's train wreck on the 18th hole, but he'll also eventually thrive from it.

Despite what the final scores suggest - for the sake of historical accuracy - disaster did not strike twice in the same place. Thirty-two years ago, they labeled the 1974 U.S. Open the Massacre at Winged Foot. The course played ridiculously tough the past four days, but this year's tournament will be remembered differently, just as Mickelson will emerge from the rubble differently.

The Meltdown at Winged Foot was painful to watch, but Mickelson is no martyr in this tragedy, which makes it curious that around water coolers today, he's surely being portrayed as a sympathetic character.

It's not Mickelson's words that paint the golfer as a victim, but his tone, the anguished look on his face and the tenor of his voice. Who couldn't feel him hurt as Mickelson tried to explain how he inexplicably treated the final hole like Mama Cass' final sandwich?

"I just can't believe that I did that," he said. "I am such an idiot."

And he's right there: He brought this pain on himself.

Mickelson was swinging driver all day, even though the club was about as agreeable as a fussy baby. Mickelson didn't hit a single fairway on the back nine but still used the club on the final tee box. There'd been six different leaders all day, but when he approached the final hole, Mickelson was the one nursing a one-stroke lead, needing only a simple par for his first U.S. Open title. More than that, a simple par would've made him only the second player in the past 50 years to win three straight majors.

The ball had barely left his club head when Mickelson mouthed the words, "Oh no." And all across the Winged Foot Golf Club, fans mouthed the words, "Oh no." And on living-room couches across the country, families mouthed the words, "Oh no." In fact, those same two words were repeated just about everywhere - except near the hospitality tent left of the 18th fairway, where everyone screamed the words, "Look out!" The shot was so far left, you half-expected Ted Kennedy to catch it in his mouth.

Volunteers and U.S. Golf Association officials worked like air traffic controllers drunk on Red Bull, reconfiguring fans and making sure Mickelson had an angle from his lie in the Mad Max terrain to the hole, 210 yards away.

Then came Mistake No. 2. Mickelson should have played smart - like he'd done the previous three days. In two of his U.S. Open runner-up finishes, Mickelson watched as Payne Stewart and David Toms went the conservative route and played for the fairway on No. 18.

But Mickelson wanted the green.

His shot was terrible, hitting a tree and barely advancing far enough for a first down. Mickelson's third shot plopped into a bunker, buried like a turtle's egg. He eventually settled for a double bogey on the hole - his worst score of the 72-hole tournament - and finished one stroke behind Australia's Geoff Ogilvy.

"This one is going to take a little while to get over," Mickelson said. "This one is pretty disappointing."

The final-hole breakdown wasn't exactly like Greg Norman's Sunday collapse at the 1996 Masters; more like the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie Golf Links, where Jean Van de Velde lost on a triple bogey on the final hole of the tournament. (Needing just a six on the par-4 18th hole, Van de Velde clanged one shot off the bleachers, put another in the water and dropped another in a bunker before the bleeding stopped.) But the comparison to Norman is probably more apt because of the fallout.

Norman grew from the memorable loss. The brash, outspoken golfer was immediately embraced by fans like never before. Mickelson is already a fan favorite; a reputation built more losing big tournaments than winning the small ones.

But you get the feeling that yesterday's defeat - coupled with the way Mickelson responded to it - will catapult him to a different level of popularity. Casual fans, housewives, young children see the lumpy lefty and weep for his wounds - self-inflicted or not.

By losing so magnificently, Mickelson has catapulted himself to a new realm of popularity. Sure, we like winners. We like watching champions roll in a tough putt on the final shot of a tournament. We like the fist pumps and the celebrations.

But unless we have an emotional stake, we actually prefer that with which we most easily identify. Losing, adversity, failure - these are universal themes that thread through everyone, sports fan or not.

Mickelson had a shot at history yesterday. Through his own brash foolishness, he'll have to settle for unprecedented popularity.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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