In the end, Phil Mickelson's career may be remembered as much for the near-misses and gut-wrenching collapses as it is for the absurd talent displayed through multiple major victories and dozens of wins. Some are still surprised and find it incongruous that the putt on 18 at the 2004 Masters dropped, which is what makes Mickelson one of the most enjoyable and dramatic players to follow in the history of the game.
Earlier this week, the golf world got a classic Tiger Woods victory in which he took the lead at the midpoint with dominance on the par-5s, extended it on the weekend while the competition fell off, and then cruised into victory over the final nine holes. On Thursday, the other superstar who's dominated American golf headlines for the past 15 years turned in a classic Mickelson performance in which he ignited the crowd on an inevitable march to breaking 60...only to have everything go wrong at the last second, in the cruelest way possible.
Needing just two birdies in his final five holes to break 60, Mickelson came to the 18th green with a 25-foot birdie putt to make history. And he put it right on line. The putt circled around almost the entire cup before hopping back out, the minuscule difference between history and empathy. Mickelson described it thusly:
"There's a big difference between 60 and 59. Not that big between 60 and 61, really isn't. But there's a big barrier, a Berlin Wall barrier between 59 and 60."
Mickelson is loved for his relatively gregarious persona with the fans and friendly rapport with the press, groups that seemed to feel the pain on Thursday after he came tantalizingly close to breaking 60. This was not the car crash collapse at a major, but rather an organic moment Phil created at a relatively inconsequential Thursday during one of the Tour's regular stops. The news of Mickelson's march toward 59 (or perhaps, 58) spread quickly Thursday afternoon, forcing Golf Channel to come on the air early and do their broadcast on the fly. But as is often the case with Mickelson, the frenzy he whipped up climaxed with an unbelievable finish for all the wrong reasons.
When Phil spoke with Golf Channel right after the round, he was still incredulous about the final putt, exhorting Mark Rolfing to show him the replay as they forced him to watch the build-up of his full round. He interrupted his own response:
"I was thinking 59 back on 10. When I hit that front 9, I was thinking it the whole time -- are you going to show that last hole? I'd really like to see that one more time."
Phil credited much of his amazing round to his driver, basically delivering the best advertisement possible for Callaway's new Razr Fit Xtreme. He's long been a devotee of Callaway, but the quotes were the stuff of an infomercial, "This driver is a dream. This Razr Fit Xtreme gave me the confidence to not miss it left...I was almost in disbelief at how easy it was, and how straight it was. I drove it phenomenal." Phil put the new driver in his bag on Tuesday, and apparently it delivered instantaneous success for him on a course where missing left off the tee often means water trouble.
In addition to the driver, Phil also worked with his swing coach Butch Harmon this week. Mickelson is known to work with Butch often, but in the end, it's rarely more than a minor tweak, or just some mental reassurance. He rarely makes any changes to his swing despite his continued sessions with a coach.
His short game, however, almost never needs tweaking and still remains among the best in the world. Phil's wedges and work around the green make a number like 59 possible at almost any time. He's broken 30 on a front or back side in PGA Tour play eight times now, shot 62 or better five times, and this was his second round of 60 at this venue alone. The short game that starts those birdie trains was in full effect on Thursday. From the fairway on No. 10 (his first hole), he nearly sank a sand iron but had to settle instead for a short birdie putt. That started a four-hole stretch where he put his approach shots right on top of the pin, including a near ace with a "gentle fade" six-iron at the par-3 12th.
It was the start of an amazing day at TPC Scottsdale, where the Arizona State alum is beloved. Mickelson was one of the players who made the tournament the spectacle that it has become, with the largest and rowdiest galleries anywhere. And they achieved full roar as he birdied 10 of his first 13 holes -- making 58 look within reach, as Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee noted, "I actually thought he was going to shoot 58, when I came in after he had birdied his 12th hole."
All that incredible work, however, was wiped away by the final putt, the lasting image and stroke of the day. Phil called it "crushing" and said he was "mortified" when re-hashing it. It was clear he thought it was dead center the whole way, "Six feet out, it was right in the middle. Two feet out, it was right in the middle. Eight inches out, it was right in the middle. And somehow it dove off at the end. For it to lip out that way and lip out uphill slightly and to come back a little bit at me at that pace and speed, it's very tough to do."
The putt immediately joins the list of golf's most frustrating lip-outs. It's still early, but the final putt will be one of the highlights of the year, and becomes another small chapter in Phil's history of near-misses and collapses. It's not giving away the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where he was incredulous for an altogether different reason. But for a regular Thursday on tour, it was a dramatic but deflating finish that suddenly became a moment in golf history for the wrong reasons. And like the 2004 Masters, or Winged Foot, Phil will carry it forever. "To [break 60] in a tournament would have been historic for me, and something I'd always remember. I'll always remember that putt on the last hole, too, probably."