The 2011 U.S. Open begins Thursday live from Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, and with Tiger Woods sitting out due to injury, everyone has been scrambling to find a storyline that makes sense. Truth be told, the most likely scenario is that someone fairly random with an ordinary backstory ends up winning the dang thing, kind of like Graeme McDowell last year.
But since that possibility isn't worth discussing prior to the tournament, we're left to explore other storylines. Can Ernie Els recapture the magic he showed in 1997, the last time this tournament was played at Congressional? Can Rory McIlroy get over his Masters collapse? Can Sergio Garcia regain his form? Can [INSERT RANDOM GOLFER WITH A COOL BACKSTORY HERE] surprise? All of these are intriguing, of course, and should be explored.
There's one larger question, though, of course, one that appeals to casual fans. That question: what can Phil Mickelson do to avoid more heartbreak at the U.S. Open? Mickelson has been the runner-up in this event five times, including the ill-fated final hole that doomed him at Winged Foot in 2006. Dan Daly of the Washington Times explored that question the other day.
Still, Mickelson's has been one of the stranger golf journeys. His accomplishments, though considerable, have been dwarfed by Woods, and he figures to be remembered as much for what he almost did as for what he did do. The man, after all, has almost won five U.S. Opens, finishing an agonizing second each time. Inasmuch as nobody has won more than four, well, just think of the history he's flirting with there.
Daly notes Mickelson's age (he turns 41 during the tournament), his 0-for-20 at the U.S. Open and his status as the "resident immortal" (Daly's words, not mine) of the tournament with Woods absent. The implication is clear: this is a chance for redemption for Mickelson, and it better come soon, because he's getting older and his history at Congressional isn't very good.
I agree with Daly insomuch as winning the 2011 U.S. Open could help people forget about the times he didn't. But here's what keeps gnawing at me: how important is this tournament for Mickelson's legacy anyway?
Sure, a win would be nice. Everyone wants to win, especially Phil. Sure, it may provide some closure to the past, which features all of those incredible near-misses. But I don't see how a win or loss at Congressional does much for Mickelson's legacy, and I don't get the sense that it's life or death for him.
Or, anywhere close to it. Mickelson's preparation for this tournament included a practice round elsewhere Wednesday and a stop at the White House, prompting one local scribe to suggest his training method was "not exactly an on-point day of preparation." When asked how important winning this event was to him, Mickelson said that "if you focus so much on the result, sometimes you can get in your own way." That doesn't sound like someone who is as concerned about his past history in this event as Daly and others seem to be.
To me, it's not that surprising. Mickelson's reputation for not being able to win the big one really evaporated when he won the Masters in 2004 in a thrilling duel with Ernie Els. That was his real "shed his collapses" moment. He then won two more Majors in the next two years, then emphatically overcame his 2006 disaster at Winged Foot and his 2009 runner-up finish at Bethpage by stealing Tiger Woods' thunder and winning the 2010 Masters. Legacy-wise, that was more of a redemption story than anything that could happen at Congressional.
Now, granted, each Major is different, and the U.S. Open has its own mystique. Winning the Masters alone doesn't suffice for falling short at the Open. Still, it does seem like Mickelson doesn't care that much about all of that. He certainly seemed to embrace his new status as the ambassador for American golfers, talking at length about how he thinks there's more talent there than people think. He also was very reflective about his past U.S. Open experiences, at least in Daly's piece.
Honestly, he sounded like a man who isn't too worried about how he will be portrayed. Perhaps it dates back to his year of turmoil in his family in 2009, when both his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. That might have been the moment where Mickelson realized it was about more than golf. His victory in the 2010 Masters was described as a "win for the family," and in that way, he was able to fuse his professional and personal lives together.
It's wrong to say Mickelson lost his edge there, but it was the kind of victory that puts a bow tie on everything that happened to Mickelson over the years. Now, he enters the U.S. Open with four Major titles, a stable family situation and firm status as the second-most recognizable golfer in the world behind Woods. From a personal standpoint, a win at Congressional would give him something he doesn't already have, and for that, he's probably motivated to perform.
But if things don't break right and he loses? He's still Lefty, he's still the second-best golfer of his generation, he's still incredibly rich and he still has a healthy family. He'll take all of that and not lose sleep over coming up short again at the Open. We should do the same instead of going back to the choker meme again.