Entering the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, there was nobody hotter on the PGA Tour then Phil Mickelson.
The sweet-swinging lefty captured the 2005 PGA Championship before following that up with a win at the 2006 Masters. With victories in the last two majors, and three second-place finishes at the U.S. Open already under his belt, Mickelson came to the Mamaroneck, N.Y. layout as the favorite.
After a sizzling third-round 69, Mickelson entered Sunday's action tied for the lead. He held a one-stroke lead by the time he stood on the 18th tee, needing just a par to capture his third consecutive major. What happened on that long par 4 will forever be remembered as one of the most painful finishes in U.S. Open history.
"I cannot believe he didn't hit 4-wood there" - Johnny Miller
Needing a par to win a tournament will cause almost every golfer on the PGA Tour to play it safe off the 18th tee. Mickelson, though, is not like most golfers. He strode to the tee with wood in hand, causing NBC analyst Johnny Miller to remark, "This better be a 4-wood." It wasn't, and Mickelson sliced his driver miles to the left, caroming off a hospitality tent before finally coming to rest in the rough behind a tree.
"Oh no, it's caught an elm tree solid" - Roger Maltbie
Mickelson's gift and curse is the most diabolical brain in golf. His creative genius knows no limits and he often pulls off shots the majority of golfers wouldn't dream of attempting at their local links, let alone on national television. That can also lead to questionable decisions on the course, and his second shot on 18 was certainly one of them. Instead of playing further down the fairway to a manageable wedge distance, Mickelson attempted to cut a long iron from 210 yards around an elm tree in front of him. He fired directly into said tree, and the ball dropped in the rough just yards from where he struck the shot.
"He could play for the playoff, you don't have to go for the gusto here" - Johnny Miller
Miller reminding Mickelson he doesn't have to "go for the gusto" on his third shot is like a parent telling their child they could suffer an upset stomach after eating a whole bag of Fuzzy Peaches. Pitching out is not in Lefty's vocabulary, and he hoisted a towering iron shot over the tree blocking his path to the green. Unfortunately, it leaked to the left and found its way to the back bunker, ending with the dreaded "fried egg" lie. Even with the all-world short game Mickelson possesses, an up-and-down for bogey to force a playoff seemed unlikely. Miller's comment as Mickelson walked down the fairway to face his impending doom was legendary: "You don't have to run down the last stretch on a white stallion. You can limp in there and say thanks for the trophy."
"I admire your smile right now, but I don't know how you're doing it" - Johnny Miller
Amid rabid chants of "Let's go, Phil!" from the gallery surrounding 18, Mickelson stalked around the bunker, calculating the best way to attack the "impossible" shot that awaited. The crowd's support for the swashbuckling lefty was only strengthened by his struggles on the final hole, as if to say, "We've all been there." Mickelson's short game is one of the best the golf world has ever seen, but not even David Hasselhoff could safely navigate this sandy grave. He splashed out, only to watch his ball race past the flag stick and nestle in thick rough just off the green. He would need to chip in to force a playoff.
"To be honest, one of the worst collapses in U.S. Open history by Phil Mickelson" - Johnny Miller
Unable to hole his chip shot, the collapse was complete and Geoff Ogilvy was somehow the U.S. Open champion. The quest for the "Mickelson Slam" was over, and after a brief cooling-off period, the San Diego native broke down his 18th hole:
"I am still in shock that I did that. I just can't believe I did that," he said. "I am such an idiot. I just couldn't hit a fairway all day ... tried to go to my bread-and-butter shot, a baby carve slice on 18 and just get it in the fairway, and I missed it left. It was still OK, wasn't too bad. I just can't believe I couldn't par the last hole. It really stings. As a kid I dreamt of winning this tournament. ... This one is going to take a little while to get over. This one is pretty disappointing."
Mickelson's U.S. Open heartbreak was far from over. He would finish second again in 2009 and 2013, making it six times he would be the runner-up at the event. It remains the only major eluding him for the career Grand Slam. Following a tie for second at the FedEx St. Jude Classic this past weekend, Mickelson yet again enters the U.S. Open in good shape to contend. Will it be heartbreak or triumph this time around?