His lead was two with three holes to play — a combined 1,377 yards of iconic Winged Foot’s closing stretch. That’s all that separated 36-year-old Phil Mickelson from an elusive U.S. Open victory. It was June 18, 2006, and Lefty was closing in on his third consecutive major title. But in reality he’d been leaking oil all day.
Things didn’t improve on his next hole, the 16th. After carding his fifth bogey of the day there, Mickelson had found just two fairways in the entire final round. Then he deposited his next drive into a trash bin in the rough along the left side of the 17th fairway, prompting longtime NBC Sports play-by-play man Dan Hicks to quip, “He’s gotten it up and down from every other place this week at Winged Foot. Might as well get it from a trash can.”
The script was straight out of a horror movie — and it was playing out in real time in front of a global TV audience of millions. As Mickelson scrambled to save par on 17, ahead of him co-leader Colin Montgomerie was melting down on 18. The veteran Brit’s double-bogey implosion ended his hopes of securing the first major title of his career. Meantime, Geoff Ogilvy, a stroke behind Mickelson at the start of the day, jarred a courageous par putt on the 72nd hole to become the leader in the clubhouse at 5 over par.
Still, the stage was set for Phil. The fan favorite had rowdy New Yorkers pulling for him all week at the course in suburban Westchester County. Now he was clinging to a single-stroke lead. One last par and the coronation would be complete.
Johnny Miller, stationed in the broadcast tower with Hicks, and in full-on chatter mode with course reporter Roger Maltbie, labeled what played out over the next 20 minutes “one of the worst collapses in U.S. Open history.” It might also have been the NBC team’s finest moment, one that, 14 years later, still burns in their memory banks.
Ben Hogan has officially rolled over in his grave. I cannot believe he didn’t hit 4-wood there.
THE SCENE: On the tee of the 450-yard, par-4 18th, Mickelson stands over his ball.
Dan Hicks: I remember thinking to myself, How in the world does Phil Mickelson have a chance to win the U.S. Open with a par, after hitting just two fairways all day in the final round? There was a lot happening down the stretch. A lot of guys were still in it, and a lot of guys were melting down. We got to Phil’s tee shot at 18 just before he hit it. We were live on air with it.
Johnny Miller, from NBC’s live broadcast: “This better be a 4-wood.”
Roger Maltbie: Phil pulled a driver, which surprised me. The 18th at Winged Foot is a dogleg-left, with a huge stand of trees on the left. You have to keep the ball right-center of the fairway, which isn’t very wide. I didn’t think driver was the right play, and Johnny certainly didn’t think it was the right play.
Hicks: Phil was on an absolute roll, going for three major titles in a row. But something in the back of my mind was telling me, You tempt Winged Foot this many times without finding the fairway, you’re gonna pay the price. Of course, it wasn’t a 4-wood, and Phil bounced his drive off a hospitality tent.
Maltbie: He just flinged the thing way left. It bounded off the tent and ended up in a trampled area where the galleries had been.
Miller, on the broadcast: “I tell you what — right now, Ben Hogan has officially rolled over in his grave. I cannot believe he didn’t hit 4-wood there.”
Hicks: After the tee shot, I just tried to listen to Johnny do what I think was the best commentary of his career. Great players rise to the occasion when the moments are at their biggest. Johnny rose to the occasion down the stretch of that Open.
Miller: “It’s just a classic… you don’t release your left side. Maybe overswung a little; he’s late coming into it; he releases it probably three inches late, possibly because of nervousness and possibly from overswinging. Face is open and out it goes.”
After plonking his ball off the tent, Mickelson contemplates his second shot. A large gallery forms behind him as he eyes the row of elm trees in his line. He’s got 201 to the hole.
Maltbie: There was a huge contingent pulling for Phil all four days, and they were in a fever pitch. Let’s be honest, it’s New York. By that time of the day, people have had their share of beverages. Their man has got a chance to win the U.S. Open, and they are psyched. It was raucous.
Miller (still moaning about the drive): “I always thought precision golf was the key to winning U.S. Opens, but I guess I’m just getting old.”
Maltbie: Phil had a clean lie, and in a way I think that may have contributed to all the things that happened next. Had it been a grassy lie he probably would have had to pitch it out into the fairway. But in Phil fashion, he thought he could get the club on the back of the ball and hoist this thing up over the trees. It didn’t work.
Mickelson’s second ricochets off a tree about 60 yards in front of him and bounces back to a mere 25 yards from where he hit it.
Miller: “Wow. You see the shock on his face right now? He knows he’s hit a horrendous shot. Just a sullen look right there. Ashen look. He looks like he aged five years on that shot.”
Hicks: That shot had all the components of Phil’s personality and style of golf. It’s always all-or-nothing for Phil, and this time we got the nothing.
Maltbie: The ball came to rest on the hardpan. Now the third shot becomes a much harder decision.
As Mickelson mulls over his third shot with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, the beautifully grooved dynamic between Miller and Maltbie is on full display.
Miller: “So where’s he gonna hit this Roger, right over everything?”
Hicks: In my opinion, it’s the greatest tandem of 18th-tower analyst and walking broadcaster the game has ever had. Roger played the perfect foil to Johnny.
Maltbie: What is most special to me about our relationship is that he trusted me. We thought about golf in a lot of the same ways, and I think that came across. I’ll be honest with you — I miss him. That’s no knock on Paul Azinger. But Paul Azinger is Paul Azinger. He’s not Johnny Miller. It’s just a little different.
For the third shot, in which he still has tree trouble, Mickelson decides to pull 8-iron and go for the green rather than punch the ball into the fairway.
Miller: “He’s taking a chance to lose the Open outright if he doesn’t pull this off…. He could play for the playoff, you know. You don’t have to go for the gusto here.”
Mickelson’s third flies over the trees but plugs badly in the left-front greenside bunker.
Miller: “This is a nightmare right here. You couldn’t have worse decisions than he’s had on this hole, I don’t care who you are. I know you all love Phil, but come on. You just have to make par on this hole. You can hit a 2-iron or 3-iron off the tee, another long iron onto the green. Two-putt and say, ‘See you later.’ 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.’”
Peculiarly, Mickelson half-smiles as he strides the fairway, en route to the green.
Hicks: The possibility had become clear that he was going to let down the New York fans again. Phil smiled, but it wasn’t the real Mickelson smile.
Miller: “I want to see the look on his face when he sees where that ball is.”
Maltbie: After he plugged it in the bunker and saw the lie, I think he kind of knew, Man, this has all gone south.
Hicks: The entire championship had come around this one green. The sound of the crowd was almost eerie. It was loud, but loud as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Miller: “It’s a wild scene. Almost like a football game.”
Mickelson’s fourth shot, out of the bunker, rolls across the green, past the cup and into the opposite rough. To get into a playoff with Ogilvy, he’ll have to hole his chip.
Maltbie: After the bunker shot, the crowd didn’t roar — it was more like a groan, and it was loud. Those people were pulling so hard for Phil, and they knew it was over.
Mickelson’s last-gasp attempt, his fifth shot, slides past the hole, giving Ogilvy — who, with his wife, has been watching on television in the men’s locker room — the win.
Miller: “To be honest with you, one of the worst collapses in U.S. Open history, by Phil Mickelson.”
Lefty holes his comeback putt for a double-bogey 6, finishing T-2 with Monty and Jim Furyk. Fourteen years later, he has yet to win a U.S. Open.
Hicks: It all happened so quickly. The look of shock on Phil’s face told the story. This was one of those things that was going to haunt him the rest of his career.
Maltbie: Phil walked past me going to the scorer’s table. He sat in there with his wife, Amy. I’ve got my producer, Tommy Roy, in my ear: “Get an interview. Get him out of there!” Of course, I can’t go into the scorer’s room. And Phil is going through hell. Ultimately, our producers made the call to get off the air, so the broadcast was over. Two minutes later, Phil gets up out of his chair and walks out to me. “Okay, Roger,” he says. “I’ll do the interview.” There was nothing I could do.
Hicks: It was one of those moments when anything I said wasn’t going to add much to the scene. It was out — Phil had just exposed himself in front of everybody, in a very uncomfortable way. It’s almost like, “There you have it. You saw it. It was uncomfortable. But that’s that.”