The year in golf was defined by the two biggest stars of this generation -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- rising back to the top of the golf world and providing a major story for us to devour almost every month. It's hard to say anyone had a more eventful season than Tiger, but Phil was right there, creating drama and making headlines throughout the summer months.
At the midpoint of the year, it appeared this would be another season of excruciating close calls for Mickelson. He would re-write his 2013 story in July at Muirfield with a stunning, and relatively unexpected, British Open win. And what made that victory more impressive was that it came on the heels of the crushing second-place finish in the U.S. Open.
America's national championship is the white whale of Mickelson's career -- it's the one he's wanted the most, for the longest, but has settled for six second-place medals instead of the the big trophy. But there was something about the missed opportunity this June that felt like it cemented his runner-up status for his career. At 43-years old, his best chances of competing in golf's most grueling week and toughest test were thought to be in the past. A father's day victory, also his birthday, at Merion seemed inevitable. There was just too much working in Mickelson's favor all week, as he held the lead for much of the four days in Philly and started Sunday in the driver's seat.
Mickelson started the week with minimal on-site prep, choosing instead to fly private back to San Diego for his daughter's graduation just days before the opening round. He returned to Philly in the middle of the night Thursday, a few short hours before his tee time. The easy narrative was right there for the sportswriter crowd -- Phil puts his family first during his most important week of the season, and then wins it on Father's Day.
With all those non-golf forces working in his favor, Mickelson also added an on-course highlight down the stretch on Sunday that would likely be a harbinger for victory for any other golfer in this tournament. On his opening nine, Mickelson was just a bit off, not particularly sharp with any club in the bag. He started the day at 1-under, but two double bogeys in a three-hole stretch dropped him two shots back of Justin Rose when he made the turn at Merion. Then, the front nine failures were wiped away with one incredible shot on No. 10. With wedge in his hand, perhaps the best short-game player in the history of the game, stuck it from 76 yards out for an eagle to retake the lead:
He had erased the effects of another sputtering Sunday, and this was going to be the year he finally won the U.S. Open.
But that would be the last red number of the day for Mickelson, who carded three bogeys over his final six holes to again fall off the pace set by Rose. In classic Mickelsonian fashion, the lefty committed a crucial blunder when there was little risk facing a shot. On the par-3 13th hole, he airmailed his tee shot over the green. It was playing just over 100 yards and had been the easiest hole on the course for most of the week. Just a simple wedge and a couple putts were all that was needed to avoid an inexcusable bogey. But Phil outthought it, waffling on what club to pull and what line to take. It was the start of his unraveling, and probably the most difficult runner-up finish in his U.S. Open career.
The shock of another squandered chance floated off of Mickelson's face as he stood on the 18th green, incredulous at how it came undone once more. After the round, he repeatedly used the word "heartbreak" to describe the outcome and was candid as usually, saying this was the toughest loss he'd ever taken. From SB Nation's Emily Kay just hours after the final round failure:
"This was my best chance of all of them because I was playing well, I had a golf course I really liked that I could play aggressive on a number of holes," he said, red-eyed, not from his travels but from pent-up sentiment. "I felt like this was as good an opportunity as you could ask for and to not do it, it hurts."
It looked like the theme of his 2013 season was written at Merion, but Mickelson turned around one month later to win back-to-back weeks in Scotland and earn the third leg of the career grand slam at the The Open Championship. It was a startling turnaround, given that his run there was the opposite of the U.S. Open -- very few contentions and a general malaise about his ability to win on the links.
That victory at the British only amplifies the importance of the U.S. Open, which he has already started discussing setting up a prep plan for in 2014. The entire season will be used to target a win a Pinehurst. Last season, however, his dramatic hole-out and another crushing runner-up were undoubtedly one of the top 25 stories of the year.