OAKMONT, Pa. – Phil Mickelson played 34 holes in seven over par at the 116th U.S. Open on Friday. He played through the shadows and happy hour, before small galleries who cheered him on and laughed at themselves.
Then he came back with the dew Saturday morning and went par-par for 73. At seven over, Mickelson is 11 shots behind Dustin Johnson, who played 36 holes Friday and shot 67-69. Lee Westwood was also at four under par, tied with Johnson, but was just beginning his second round.
“Hopefully, I’ll make the cut,” Mickelson said. “I believe that I will. If so and I have an opportunity, you just never know on this golf course.”
By one measure, Mickelson succeeded just by being himself, grinding out pars while his loyal band of followers squawked and giggled for the bulk of his second round. It was good theater; call it Friday Night Phil. His SEC-proof relatability was one of the only recognizable things about this U.S. Open, which has had very little flow since the weather delays.
“Shake and bake, Phil!” someone said as he walked off the 11th tee, and several fans tittered at the Talladega Nights reference.
“Happy birthday, Phil! The 15th is my birthday, too!”
Mickelson, who turned 46 Thursday, turned to the grandstands to his right and gave the birthday woman a thumbs-up. He marched forward again.
“Yay, birthday buddy!”
Another turn, another thumbs up.
It was someone else’s turn: “We love you, too, Justin!”
Justin Rose smiled. He and Mickelson have been grouped together so many times it’s something of an inside joke. Henrik Stenson, the third man in the group, had hooked his drive and was walking well ahead of them.
You could hear the traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the timbre changing each time a set of wheels veered into the rumble strips.
“Let’s go, Phil!”
Mickelson was almost to his tee shot now, and he looked over at two guys standing by themselves just off the right of the fairway. He gave them a thumbs-up. “Happy birthday, Phil!” one said. Another thumbs-up.
He hit a sand wedge that wound up 40 feet behind and above the pin, leaving a tough two-putt. He hit his birdie try just by the hole, made par.
Mickelson hasn’t won in nearly three years, but he’s still been in the news as part of a long SEC investigation into insider trading. He was not charged, although as legal analysts pointed out it was a close call, and he gave back roughly $1 million in ill-gotten gains. Did if negatively affect his golf? In his pre-tournament press conference, Mickelson said it might have.
It certainly didn’t dampen the adoration of his fans Friday night.
“Go, Phil!” a woman bellowed at Phil’s back as he walked toward his tee shot on 12. He kept walking. “That was my voice he heard!” she said.
It was no kind of clinic. Mickelson was not sharp, and Rose, who was fighting a stiff back, shot eight over (72-76), unlikely to make the cut. After shooting a first-round 69, wild Stenson was at 10 over through 16 holes in the second. He would not return for the group’s final two holes Saturday morning.
Mickelson’s eagle chip at the 12th nearly went in, his ball trickling 20 feet past the pin. He two-putted for another par. For his 36 holes of work he would hit 21 of 28 fairways (75%), which was better than the field average (57%)—a very un-Phil-like performance. That was the good news.
The bad news was Mickelson was uncharacteristically wild with his irons, hitting just 20 of 36 greens in regulation. “I didn’t have very many birdie opportunities,” he said. “My irons were—they don’t feel bad, but they’re just a fraction off. Instead of hitting it 15 feet, giving myself chances, I’m 30 feet, 40 feet, and fighting just to make par.”
When he did make a birdie, seemingly surprising himself as his ball found the cup at the 14th hole, he immediately chased it with a bogey on 15 after losing his tee shot into the left rough. He made a routine par on 16.
Darkness was upon them now, and the horn sounded to stop play. A train clattered down the tracks as the MetLife blimp did a 180 overhead, headed in for the day. Mickelson met with his swing coach, Andrew Getson, and with caddie Jim Mackay they piled into a van bound for the clubhouse.
After saying earlier there were no circumstances under which he’d go for the driveable par-4 17th hole, Mickelson, perhaps predictably, changed his mind and went for it with his first shot Saturday morning. He hit a good drive, but it trickled into the bunker, and he couldn’t get up and down.
He hit the fairway at 18 but had over 200 yards in for his approach, and it was all he could do to hit the front of the green and two-putt for par.
“I felt like it was a very fair setup,” Mickelson said. “If you played well, there were pins you could get to. You could make some birdies. There were some very challenging pars. I actually thought I played really well, except I let four or five par putts kind of slide, and all of a sudden [if I had made those] I’d be two over and right in it. You can’t do that here because you don’t have those birdie opportunities to offset those mistakes.”
With that Mickelson was off to do what everyone has had to do this week: wait. Still waiting for his first victory after five top-fives this year, his first victory since the 2013 British Open, Mickelson would have to wait to see if he’d make the cut, and if so when he might start round three. He was still here, still grinding it out, which was more than could be said for some.