U.S. Open: Phil Mickelson’s long walk into the sunset

Phil Mickelson finished at 13-over this week in North Carolina, well outside the cut line

PINEHURST, N.C. — Twenty-five years ago on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2, Phil Mickelson was one-half of one of the most beautiful, touching moments in golf history, surrounded by love and adoration. Friday afternoon on that exact spot, he was a man alone, tapping in for double-bogey, and the silence was almost absolute.

As Mickelson made the turn at 12-over for the tournament and walked to the first tee for his second nine of the day, a few “Let’s go, Phil!” and “Thumbs up, Phil!” calls were audible, though not nearly as loud or frequent as the cheers for Mickelson’s playing partner Rickie Fowler. Once Mickelson teed off and walked down the first fairway, you could count on two hands the number of fans accompanying him along the course.

When you step back and think about it, this is an astounding decline from even a few years ago. Mickelson was once the favorite of U.S. Open galleries. Everyone — from wine-sipping, sponsor-tent dwellers to beer-drinking, sunscreen-slathered rope liners — saw a little of themselves in Phil. He played the game they wanted to believe they could: Swing away and damn the consequences. The fact that Mickelson finished runner-up in six — six! — U.S. Opens wasn’t as important as the fact that he kept teeing it up the next year, ready to try again.

You can see one clear indication of Mickelson’s fall from grace in a subtle organizational maneuver. Back in the old days — that is, pre-LIV — Mickelson and Tiger Woods would always be on opposite sides of the draw. If Woods teed off in the morning, Mickelson would go in the afternoon, and vice versa.

Since both were major draws for television and the on-course gallery, dividing them up made sense. Now, Mickelson goes wherever he fits — this year, just two groups behind Woods. Mickelson teed off 22 minutes behind Woods — who, it probably doesn't even need saying, still draws ocean currents' worth of fans.

At this point, Mickelson’s descent from U.S. Open darling to afterthought isn’t exactly newsworthy or even shocking. He’s not the only star to fade from public view after joining LIV; Dustin Johnson also spiraled his way out of the tournament, and Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell aren’t anywhere near North Carolina. But Mickelson’s fate is somehow sadder and more profound. It's damn near Shakespearean in the way he lit the match that started the fire that consumed his entire reputation built over a 30-plus-year career.

The simple, inescapable truth is that Mickelson did all this to himself, aligning with LIV Golf and its Saudi backers in an effort to wound the PGA Tour and reshape professional golf. The fact that he succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do — giving players more of a voice on the business end and breaking the PGA Tour's stranglehold on the game — doesn’t exactly endear him to the masses of golf fans. Some object to LIV Golf on moral or political grounds; others just want to see the best players in the world on the same course more than four times a year.

Phil Mickelson will miss the cut at the U.S. Open yet again this week in North Carolina. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson will miss the cut at the U.S. Open again this week in North Carolina. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The U.S. Open is the one major Mickelson hasn’t yet won, the one major that keeps him from a career grand slam. Barring some kind of miracle that would dwarf even his 2021 PGA Championship victory, he’ll end his career with that unfinished business. Thanks to that PGA win at Kiawah, he has one more year’s worth of exemption remaining.

That means next year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont in Pennsylvania could likely be Mickelson’s final one, and that will bring a whole new symphony of emotion and opinion. The galleries will find him then, if only to get one more look at Lefty, and wonder what might have been.