MAMARONECK, N.Y. – Phil Mickelson walked off the 18th green on the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club on Sunday trying to smile his smile, but looking more like a man unaware that he was suffering from a head injury.
His swing coach, Rick Smith, looked like he had just caught his parents in a compromising situation and would never get the image out of his mind.
“I’m in shock,” Smith said, unable to hide the disbelief in his voice. “Total shock.”
“How can you possibly describe this?” asked one reporter, rhetorically.
Shock is a good answer. Or perhaps bizarre. Or maybe just a simple wow.
The scene was quiet, somber, even solemn. It was not befitting the normal conclusion to a major championship.
But, then again, there was nothing normal about the conclusion to the 106th U.S. Open.
At 6:37 p.m. ET, USGA officials brought the U.S. Open trophy to a table near the 18th green to await its new owner.
It would not be Mickelson. It would not be Colin Montgomerie. For that matter, it would not be Jim Fuyrk nor Padraig Harrington, both of whom bogeyed the last to ruin their chances.
The latter two will be wistful afterthoughts in future remembrances. Phil and Monty, however, will be bronzed in the agony of defeat.
Montgomerie was tied for the lead when he started the par-4 18th. He had just holed a 75-footer for birdie on the 71st hole and was in the middle of the fairway at the finisher. Fate was finally siding with a snake-bitten man. But there was a wait, and then indecision (6-iron? No, 7. Maybe? Yes?). One of the game’s best iron players hit one of the worst shots of his life, a weak leak out to the right and into the gunk.
He made double bogey. Geoff Ogilvy, in the penultimate pairing, made par and finished one shot ahead of him.
Mickelson, though, was one shot clear of Ogilvy by the time he reached the 18th. A par, like Ogilvy, and he was the winner, not just of the U.S. Open but of a third consecutive major championship.
But, like Montgomerie, he made double, playing the 72nd hole in a comical farce.
Mickelson flared driver (driver?) to the left – into-the-corporate-tents left. He clipped a tree on a daring (daring?) second attempt, his ball going roughly 25 yards. His third shot landed in a greenside bunker, into a fried-egg lie. His fourth shot (for the win!) ran through the green. His fifth shot (for a playoff!) ran 6 feet past.
“This one hurts more than any tournament, because I had it won,” Mickelson said Sunday evening. “This one is going to take a little while to get over.”
Montgomerie expressed similar sentiments just minutes before: “This is as difficult as it gets,” he said. “You wonder sometimes why you put yourself through this.”
It’s easy to understand their respective despair. Mickelson was not only trying to accomplish something that only Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan have done over the last seven-plus decades by winning three straight majors; he was trying to live out a childhood fantasy.
“I think the biggest reason why this is so disappointing is that this is a tournament that I dreamt of winning as a kid, that I spent countless hours practicing – I mean, countless hours practicing, dreaming of winning this tournament,” said Mickelson, who is now a four-time U.S. Open runner-up.
“I am still in shock that I did that. I just can’t believe that I did that,” he added, punctuating the moment with a forever statement: “I’m such an idiot.”
Montgomerie didn't define himself in such terms, but the disappointment from a man who has never won a major championship was equally evident.
“I look forward to coming back here again next year and try another U.S. Open …” he said, before pausing and adding, “disaster.”
Amidst all the gloom, there was Ogilvy, an affable Australian, who watched himself become a major champion on a television monitor in the scoring trailer. He kissed and hugged his pregnant wife, Juli, and then made the rounds.
“I think I was the beneficiary of a little bit of charity. I think I got a bit lucky,” said the modest Ogilvy, who did his part by chipping in for par on 17 and getting up-and-down for par on 18 to win by one.
“Why everything worked out that way, I don’t know.”
Ogilvy, who turned 29 a week ago Sunday, made a name for himself earlier this year by winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. But on June 18, 2006, around 7:30 p.m., everything changed.
"The whole world changes,” said Ben Curtis.
And Curtis would know. He became a major champion, literally out of nowhere, at the 2003 Open Championship. And life hasn’t since been the same.
“There’s expectations for you to go out there and win every week, and, as players know, you can’t do that,” Curtis said. “We’d like to go out there and perform at the highest level each week, but we all can’t do that.”
He also added: “You change as well.”
Curtis was in his rookie year on the PGA Tour when he triumphed at Royal St. George’s. He was not fully prepared to handle everything that comes along with being labeled a major champion. He wasn’t ready for the responsibilities, the obligations, the decisions he had to make, the overwhelming expectations.
Time will tell with Ogilvy. Right now, he’s just trying to process everything.
“It’s pretty hard to believe,” Ogilvy said. “Obviously, you dream about winning major championships, and to actually have it happen ...”
Curtis’ advice to the new champ: “I think you have to stay focused, keep grinding like you did before, because, obviously, that’s what got you there.”
And that’s what got Ogilvy, at least in relation to his performance, this title.
“I don’t drive it straight,” said Ogilvy, who hit only six of 14 fairways in shooting 2-over 72 to finish at 5 over. “But I’ve always been decent at grinding it out when par has been a good score. If you really set your mind to it and have the right attitude about it, it can be quite enjoyable.”
Which cannot be said about the experiences endured by Mickelson and Montgomerie.
Ironically, in this aftermath of devastation, the men who brought new meaning to “The Massacre at Winged Foot,” provided two of the most impressive performances of their careers.
After slipping into a change of clothes and watching the tournament play out, Montgomerie talked to the media, and did so honestly and respectfully. He was a gracious loser, sportsmanlike following a very difficult defeat.
He paid tribute to the crowd, even though there were a few jeers during his round and even some cheers when he flailed his approach shot on 18. He gave praise to Ogilvy and didn’t blame anyone for this loss, except himself.
“This is the first time I’ve really messed up,” he said, referencing the fact that his other major defeats (four previous runner-ups; still no wins) occurred because he was out-played.
After talking with the press, Monty smiled, said "cheers," and walked away.
Mickelson, who was also quite gracious in defeat, even attending the championship ceremony to publicly congratulate Ogilvy and apologize to his fans, thanked the media after fielding 23 questions. He then wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders and began his own grieving process.
Not long after, Ogilvy, who became the first Aussie since Steve Elkington in the 1995 PGA Championship to win a major, tried to put it all into words.
“I didn’t think it was going to be me, but you never think it’s going to be you,” Ogilvy said, and then summarized everything. “It’s kind of bizarre.”
Even major champions don’t have all the answers.