*With Apologies to Frank Palumbo.
Last night Big Dub lamented the headline writer’s dream that Justin Rose’s last name creates. It’s pun paradise. I challenge anyone to do worse than this headline. You can’t. But it has all the elements–Rose, cornball factor, and of course the mention of Mickelson. Winning a major is great, but I’m sure it’s slightly diminished when the story is the guy who finished second. Mickelson now has 8 runner-up finishes in Major Championships (6 in the US Open). Jack Nicklaus holds what is believed to be the record with nineteen 2nd place finishes. Could Phil catch Jack before Tiger? Maybe if they played the US Open more than once a year. I will get to Phil, but I don’t want to bury the lede any longer. Let’s talk about the golf course…just kidding.
Justin Rose did manage to win the US Open on Sunday, even if you will hear arguments that Phil lost it with his front nine mistakes and back nine wedge play. Rose was a popular pick all week (Hey, did someone pick Mickelson and Rose 1/2 in the wrong order?). He’s a great ball-striker, a fixture atop the total driving statistics and as we saw at last year’s Ryder Cup, he’s becoming a bit of a clutch putter as well. Rose made some beautiful putts in the early portion of his round Sunday, but it was his ball-striking that carried him through Merion’s last two holes when it became clear that two pars would likely be enough.
Rose is a bit under the radar for the general golf fan, but his win moved him to #3 in the world, and the more spotlight he gets the more the public will see why he’s considered one of the best guys on tour by the “insiders.” Rose performed beautifully during his post-round interviews, and perhaps even won over a few fans who had spent the day living and dying with Phil Mickelson. A lot has been made of the quality of Merion’s champions. Certainly with Jones and Hogan on the roster you get off to a good start, but Rose’s ultimate place on the list will determined by how he finishes his career. He’s certainly better than a fluke champion, but will Sunday be the high point of his career? With the depth of the modern fields is it realistic to expect players to validate their major wins with more majors?
I don’t know if Rose will win another major, but it seems like he’s more suited for difficult setups. And, already a winner at Aronimink in 2010, Rose is especially fond of what some might call, “old-style” golf courses. The U.S. Open will likely not return to Merion during Rose’s prime, but I’m sure he’ll be content if the USGA goes back to growing 6-inch rough at its Open venues.
Which brings us to Merion’s performance as host. The reviews seem to be mostly positive, bordering on raves from some of the top finishers. Mickelson was smitten. But there were certainly critics, Zach Johnson among them, who believe the USGA “manipulates” golf courses and doesn’t allow them to be played as they were designed. It’s such a fine line with the US Open, and I think Merion did well this week to not cross over to the absurd. The pins, at times, were borderline. But it wasn’t Shinnecock and it wasn’t the Olympic Club in ’98. As for the rough, when you get 8 inches of rain, I’m not sure how you contain the rough. And the rough has always been a hazard at Merion. Personally, I’m OK with requiring the players to hit straight tee shots, especially when 1/2 of those tee shots are irons or hybrids. The rough may limit your ability to recover, but why is that the preferred skill as opposed to accuracy?
I think Merion showed itself capable of hosting the US Open this year, and in future years, but the logistics will remain a real challenge. US Opens are already assigned through 2020. How often is the USGA willing to sacrifice revenue for a smaller venue? How often are the members willing to sacrifice both their courses? I wouldn’t expect a return visit any time soon, but at least we know now that it isn’t out of the question.
Finally–Phil. The early parts of Sunday’s round featured some spectacular collapses. Luke Donald fell apart after drilling a spectator. Charl Schwartzel couldn’t hit the hole from 5 feet. And of course, Steve Stricker hit a cold shank. On a hole where he’d already hit a tee shot out of bounds. I’m not sure if there is anything more embarrassing than having a shank put on “pro-tracer,” but that’s what happened to Stricker. How he took the club back the rest of the day is a real mystery. That he only made only a couple more bogeys is a miracle.
Phil’s demise wasn’t as colorful. He made what I’d call a couple of “routine doubles.” No penalty shots, just a few poor decisions and bad putts on difficult holes. It happens. Phil still hadn’t clicked when he holed out for eagle on 10. That shot vaulted him back into the tournament, but also masked what wasn’t his best day. Sure, he could have easily won by three or four, but without a little bit of luck on 10, he may not have even been in contention down the stretch. His bogey on 13 was the fatal error, and why someone who hits 4-iron 235 yards was hitting pitching wedge from 121? We’ll likely never know.
I do feel for Phil, my sympathy toward him has grown over the years. I actually think he deserves to win a US Open. He’s had a full career, but it’s plain to see how much he wants this one, and yet it feels destined to become his version of Norman’s green jacket. The guy remains polarizing. He was the clear fan favorite, and yet there are still those who can’t stand his “act.” What I appreciate from Phil is the unwavering belief in his game and the unflinching candor in the face of defeat. Not many players would stand up after the round and lay out for you that they were “heartbroken.” There’s rarely spin from Mickelson after a major. He tells you how bad he wants it, and how badly it hurts when he finishes second.
For those Phil fans out there, I can offer a bit of empathy. As a die-hard Payne Stewart fan, I had to deal with countless US Open disappointments. And, Payne wasn’t a guy who won a few times a year. There were years where the US Open was the only time he really was in contention. So, conceding the fact that he did win in 1991, there were excruciating moments over the next decade. He lost to Lee Janzen in 1993. Then in the mid-nineties, he took to leading early and fading fast over the weekend. In 1998, Janzen, bad luck and a loose Sunday round got him again. He was 41, you thought he’d wasted his last, best chances, but he came back and won in 1999 at Pinehurst. Where’s the 2014 US Open? Pinehurst. Maybe some hope for Phil.