U.S. Open: Why Phil Mickelson Lost

To avoid this post being anti-climactic, the reason that Phil Mickelson lost the U.S. Open at Merion is because he lost the U.S. Open at Merion.

This may seem frivolous, but looking at his sixth, second-place finish in that light has the possibility of creating freedom instead of recrimination. In the same way that we work to “accept” each shot, when you can simply accept defeat rather than having it define you, rather than having it say something about your prowess and courage, then you can begin to live life in freedom. You become unafraid of failure and ready to try again.

Rory McIlroy’s acceptance of his loss at the Masters led to his win at the U.S. Open two months later, an unheard of accomplishment. Everyone thought he would be scarred for life and might never win a major, remember? 

Adam Scott’s grace in defeat at the British Open led to his breakthrough win the following Spring at the Masters. He was carrying the reputation of having the best swing never to have won a major. What was wrong with him, the world of golf wondered?

Jason Dufner was another good player who seemed not to be upset by his losses, some very public like the PGA Championship to Keegan Bradley. But the following year, he went on to win New Orleans and Dallas within three weeks of each other.

On the other hand, we are also geared to analyze our mistakes so that we can learn from them. It’s just that sometimes we “beat a dead horse” trying to be “responsible” for our loss, trying to own up to it in some way. As Yani Tseng used to say as her English was improving, “You have to face to it.”

In Phil’s case as in most others, there will always be a myriad of possible reasons he lost. We always have to know why; we just can’t seem to settle on the simple truth that you win some and you lose some. Here are some obvious reasons most people would settle on:

  • He made two double bogeys early in the 4th round on 3 and 5.
  • He pulled the wrong club on the 120-yard par-3 13th and one-hopped it over the back of the green.
  • The pitch shot he hit on the 15th green to a tucked, back-right pin was too thin, had no backspin and scampered off the green.
  • He only made 9 birdies on the week. Justin Rose led the field with 15.
  • He didn’t have a driver in the bag only his strong 3-wood.
  • He missed the 18th fairway badly leaving no chance to reach the green when he needed birdie to tie.
  • He had a whole bunch of putts he missed in the final round that he thought were good putts. Sometimes good putts just don’t go in:

I didn’t feel the stroke was off.  The stroke felt fabulous all day, starting at the first hole.  I can’t believe that ball didn’t go in.

Second hole I hit a good putt.  It was really rough around that hole there.

I hit a good putt for eagle on 4.

Hit a good putt on 6.  I thought I made that.

I thought I made the one on 8.

Thought I made the one on 9, man.

The one on 11 wasn’t great, but I thought I had a chance on 12.

Certainly 16, I thought I made.

There were a number that could have gone in.  And I think only one did, the one on 14 for par.

In response to a question about his two double bogies and his intention to stay away from making big numbers, here’s Phil’s initial synopsis of why he lost:

I should have made bogeys on those holes and I let them become doubles.

The third hole was a very tough par, in fact, 274 into a 20 mile an hour wind, I didn’t really have the shot to get back there.  I needed a driver.  And I could have gotten a 3‑wood on the first half, the front left, which is where I went for it, and it ended up in a very awkward spot.  But I should have been able to two‑putt and make bogey.

5 was a very tough hole for me all week because, again, I didn’t carry driver, and it was into the wind.  And the landing area is 40 degrees, pitched short of those bunkers, which is about where I’m landing it.  And I wasn’t able to hit that fairway all week, and was able to play it in 2‑over, which wasn’t — 3‑over, I doubled it today.  But, again, I three‑putted.  I had a chance to get an iron shot close, thought I hit a decent shot, but three‑putted.

I just would have been very happy with bogeys on 3 and 5.  Those are tough holes.  And those were costly doubles.  But I hung tough.  And waited until I got some birdie holes, and ended up getting lucky with the hole out on 10 and getting back into it.

And here’s a more definitive explanation of what happened on 13 and 15:

13 and 15 were the two bad shots of the day that I’ll look back on where I let [the tournament] go.  Because 13, I hit a pitching wedge and when I was drawing that shot I had too much club.  I needed a gap wedge, and it would have been a better fit.  I hit too much club there.

Then I did hit the gap wedge on 15, I quit on it, and missed it short left.  If I had hit that one aggressively and flown it past the hole, I think it would have given me a birdie chance.

So those two wedge shots were the two costly shots, I felt.  Those wedge shots on 13 and 15 are the two I’ll look back on.

And then he came back to the putting shortcomings:

But all day it seemed as though —  until that hole-out on 10, it seemed like I would hit putt after putt that wouldn’t go in.  They looked good at three feet or four feet out and I couldn’t quite get it to go in.

And, reeling for answers without complaining, the conditions of the greens:

After the rain the greens were very pure.  The spike marks smoothed out after the rain.  Early on it was really rough around the hole.  But for the most part, I had good opportunities all the way through and let it slide little bit.

Looking dispassionately at what occurred with stark objectivity doesn’t mean that you are any less passionate about wanting to win:

For me it’s very heart breaking.  This could have been the big — a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I’d like to win, after having so many good opportunities.

Also playing very well here and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity, I felt, heading in, certainly the final round, the way I was playing and the position I was in.

Beyond that, he thinks this 6th runner-up finish is probably the hardest to take:

Very possibly, yeah.  I would say it very well could be.  I think this was my best chance.

I think that the way that I was playing heading in, the position I was in and the way I love the golf course.  It gave me chances to make birdies.  I didn’t really make any, but there were opportunity after opportunity, after you get by the 6th hole.  And even the 6th hole, I had a great look at it.

But this one’s probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record.  Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.

So yes, we should always take a moment to decompress and take stock of our shortcomings. It’s almost as if you would never learn anything if you didn’t.

But this part of our culture that insists that we have to have good reasons for all of our losses is unfortunate. It’s almost as if we feel a need to be accountable in some way. Critics are quick to pile on, to add their own expertise, to find ever more scintillating reasons for a performance found wanting.

But for the most part, it really is, “you win some and you lose some.”

And nobody here really knows why.

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