"For me, it's very heart-breaking," he said yesterday after a 4-over 74 left him tied for second, two shots behind U.S. Open winner Justin Rose. "This could have been a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open . . . 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."
He entered the final day as the Open's only sub-par golfer, holding a one-shot lead over three players, with a cluster of three one shot behind them. He scuffled right from the start, right to the end, but his incredible ability to find greens and rescue bad shots kept him right there to the bitter last holes, needing a birdie to force a playoff, to perhaps win the only major not on his Hall of Fame resume.
This was no choke job. He didn't hit balls into cans or on top of tents. It wasn't his ball that knocked out a lady, wasn't his that was caught in a grandstand. Maybe he made some bold strokes when he didn't need to - and promised us on Saturday that he wouldn't. And yeah, his short game was nothing to base a DVD around. But this was more about tricky greens and fickle cups. From the moment his putt for birdie lipped out on a first-hole birdie opportunity, the Merion course that Mickelson repeatedly professed love for refused to love him back.
"Are you kidding me?" he said then, and with the exception of a fourth-hole birdie and a highlight 75-foot eagle wedge on 10, it was a phrase he repeated constantly.
"Second hole, I hit a good putt," he said. "It was really rough around that hole there. Hit a good putt on six. I thought I made that. I thought I made the one on eight. Thought I made the one on nine. 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."
He needed some momentum. The galleries were there, singing happy birthday at the start, wishing it in loud voices over and over throughout the day.
"I heard, 'Happy Birthday' probably 18 times today," said his playing partner, Hunter Mahan. "Hopefully I won't wake up tonight screaming Happy Birthday. But it was fun."
Mickelson said so, too. Despite the misses, despite what he repeatedly described as "heartbreak."
"The people here have been fabulous," he said. "And to look at the members and what they've done and the homeowners, what they've sacrificed to allow this tournament to come back is pretty cool. The way the community has wanted this and supports this tournament, more so than just about any place we've ever been.
"We've played U.S. Opens at great golf courses where the membership voted not to have us back. Here, they want us back, they're opening their homes to the USGA for the infrastructure. Coming out when they can't really see too much, coming out just to be a part of the tournament. It's great the way the city of Philadelphia has supported this tournament. I hope we have a chance to come back."
In the end, that's what will mark this event, at this point of his personal timeline. The course that was supposed to play dead for the world's greatest golfers instead played hard and played fair, refusing every one of them, even winner Rose, a score below par. The tough Philly crowd was supportive and appreciative, urging on Mickelson as if he was one of their too-many near-miss sports teams.
The other day, Mickelson likened himself to the Eagles. Then he quickly said, "I don't want to go there."
Too late. He's already there. And as was evident by the love he felt right to the end yesterday, he is now a part of that history.
DN Members Only : Marcus Hayes writes about excuse-making Sergio Garcia.
On Twitter: @samdonnellon