ARDMORE, Pa. -- It was another day of déjà vu U.S. Open heartache for Philadelphia fan favorite Phil Mickelson, an afternoon of missed opportunities, a couple of sloppy double bogeys in his first five holes and so many putts that grazed the cup but somehow stayed out at still-merciless Merion Golf Club.
Once again, Mickelson occasionally flailed and ultimately failed in the final round of America’s national championship of golf, finishing in a tie for second with Australian Jason Day for a record sixth time in a tournament he yearns to win. Instead, the silver trophy was early Sunday evening by plucky Englishman Justin Rose, who survived five bogeys of his own and captured his first major title by two shots with gritty pars on his final two holes, also becoming the first Brit to win this title since Tony Jacklin prevailed at Hazeltine in Minnesota in 1970.
“This is an amazing feeling,” Rose said. “I committed myself to putting a strategy in place that I hoped would work in five to 10 years in delivering major championships. And I tried to strike on that feeling the first week out, the first time I tried and tested it [this week]. And to come out with the silver. … Amazing. It’s a moment you look back and think childhood dreams have come true.”
Rose, who beat Mickelson 1-up in singles to help Europe beat the U.S. team last fall in the Ryder Cup, played spoiler again when he posted a solid par round of 70 and finished the tournament at 1-over-par 281. He also became the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo in the 1996 Masters.
“All day it seemed like I’d hit putt after putt that just wouldn’t go in,” said Mickelson, who was hoping to celebrate his 43rd birthday in grand style. Instead, there were a half dozen holes where he thought well-struck putts would drop only to miss by an inch or two.
“For the most part, I had good opportunities all the way through and let it slide,” he lamented. “I think this was my best chance. The way I was playing heading in, the position I was in, the way I love the golf course, it gave me chances to make birdies. But this one’s probably the toughest for me because at 43 and coming so close [six] times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Playing two groups in front of Mickelson, Rose put the heat on Mickelson by playing those last two brutal finishing holes to near perfection as he nursed a one-shot lead. Mickelson knew he needed to birdie the 213-yard 17th and the par-4 511-yard 18th, but never came close. In fact, not a single player made birdie at 18 since Friday, when Mickelson sank a 12-foot putt in near darkness to claim a share of the 36-hole lead.
At the 18th, after a drive in the left rough and a second shot that came up short of the elevated green, Mickelson had to sink a long chip to force a Monday playoff. He gave it a wonderful effort, but his ball was wide right of the cup by about two feet and skittered 18 feet past the hole to the back fringe. Mickelson two-putted from there for a bogey and a final round of 74 to tie with Day (71) at 3-over 283.
Jason Dufner, nine off the lead after 54 holes, tied for the lowest round of the week with a 67 that vaulted the Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas alumnus into a four-way tie with former Florida Gator Billy Horschel (74), three-time major winner Ernie Els (69) and Hunter Mahan (75). Mahan played with Mickelson in the final group and was still in contention until he double bogeyed No. 15 and bogeyed his final two holes.
Rose is no stranger to Philadelphia fans. He prevailed just down the road from Merion at Aronimink in the AT&T National in 2010 in Tiger Woods’ signature tournament. And when he walked off the golf course and headed to the scoring area, fans offered up a warm standing ovation to a player they know very well.
Rose became deeply emotional after he made his final putt, looking skyward for several seconds and pointing his index finger in the air, a tribute to his late father Ken, who coached his son growing up and died of leukemia in 2002. Rose also will be forever remembered for sinking a long chip shot from the rough at the 72nd hole at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, when he tied for fourth place as a 17-year-old amateur.
“I texted my mum last night and said ‘let’s do it for dad,’ ” Rose said. “She texted to me that would be fantastic. I miss my dad immensely. Today was a fitting time to honor him. I think I conducted myself in a way he would be proud of.”
That shot at Birkdale 15 years ago evoked a roar so loud it shook tents all around, and a similar joyful noise was heard here Sunday, when Mickelson hit his wedge shot from 76 yards on the fairway into the hole at the short 280-yard 10th hole for an eagle. He leaped in the air in celebration that momentarily got him back into the lead, but bogeys at the 13th and 15th holes went a long way toward derailing his chances.
This was a day that started with eight players within four shots of Mickelson’s one-shot 54- hole lead. But one by one, the contenders become pretenders. There was Steve Stricker, trying to become the oldest Open champion at 46, making a triple bogey on his second hole with two shots, including a shank, out of bounds.
There was Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, the 2011 Masters champion, tied for the lead after a birdie at the first hole, finishing his front nine by playing the last seven holes in 7-over, including a double bogey at No. 6. And there was Luke Donald, playing with countryman Rose, posting a 42 on his front nine.
Day, third in the Masters in April and Open runner-up in 2011, made three back-nine bogeys after a birdie at the 10th got him a share of the lead.
And of course there was Mickelson, “Philly Mick,” despondent in Philadelphia.
“If I had won today or if I ultimately win [the Open], I’ll look back at the other [second-place] Opens and think that was a positive,” Mickelson said. “If I never get the Open, then I’ll look back and every time I think about the U.S. Open, I’ll just think of heartbreak.”