It was golf theatre unlike anything the grand old course had ever seen, the roars funneling through the pine trees and engulfing the memory of polite applause from the villagers and resort guests when Hogan and Snead, Ward and Patton, Nicklaus and Palmer had passed through earlier in the century.
Payne Stewart stuck his 6-iron tee shot to 4 feet on the par-3 17th hole in the final round of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Phil Mickelson didn’t flinch, firing his 7-iron to 6 feet. Mike Hicks, Stewart’s caddie, says he’d never heard the kind of noise he heard on 17 that day—“And I’ve worked several Ryder Cups.” NBC’s Roger Maltbie observed on-air, “It’s getting kinda wild out here.” Tiger Woods had to wait to hit his approach on 18 until the applause for Stewart and Mickelson subsided.
“At first I thought I was in a small earthquake,” says Ron Crow, a volunteer scorer who walked with the final pairing on that gray, drizzly afternoon. “The ground shook some because of the reception the gallery gave those two players.”
Stewart had just rammed home a monster putt on the 16th green, an improbable, double-breaking downhiller from 25 feet to protect his tie atop the leaderboard with Mickelson. Stewart and Hicks began surveying Stewart’s putt, and Mickelson and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, began analyzing Mickelson’s putt.
“Later Payne told me he heard Phil and Bones reading that putt. Payne remembered that putt from his practice rounds, and he thought they were over-reading the break,” says Dick Coop, the Chapel Hill-based sports psychologist who counted Stewart as a client.
Mickelson missed his putt to the right. Hicks had no doubt that Stewart would pour his putt into the center of the cup for a birdie and a one-stroke lead.
“It was a gimme,” Hicks says. “He hadn’t missed inside 4 feet all week.”
Then followed one of the most famous 18th holes ever played in major championship history. Mickelson—two shots to the back-right corner of the green of the par-four 18th, 25 feet away. Stewart—a drive, a pitch-out from thick rough and a 78-yard wedge shot to 15 feet short of the back-left hole location.
“Payne had a better chance to make his putt than I did to make mine,” Mickelson said. “His putt was uphill and mine was sidehill with a lot of break.”
Mickelson aimed about 2 feet right of the hole and rolled a good putt, but the ball stopped just an inch to the right of the hole.
“I knew if I missed and gave him a free run, there was a very good chance it would go in.” – Phil Mickelson
Mickelson stood to the side with Mackay. “I knew if I missed and gave him a free run, there was a very good chance it would go in,” Mickelson said.
What-ifs are as infinite as the stars and as worthless as old war bonds. But they can be tantalizing to reflect upon: What-if Stewart misses his putt?
Amy Mickelson was back home in Scottsdale, Ariz., about to go into labor with the birth of the couple’s first child. Mackay had carried a beeper all weekend that would register a message from Amy that delivery was imminent; Phil pledged to walk off the golf course at any point to board a private plane and rush home to his wife’s side. Already Amy and her doctor delayed delivery by a day with medication on Saturday night; she watched the final round on the sofa with her pelvis propped up on pillows to prevent the baby dropping any further.
“I was totally in tears,” she said. “The worst thing that could happen was I have the baby Saturday night and he’s leading the U.S. Open.”
“I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mickelson said. “The U.S. Open is played every year. If that beeper goes off, I’m out of here.”
Golf Digest posed the What-If scenario to Tom Meeks, at the time senior director of rules and competitions with the USGA.
“It’s one of those hypotheticals where we’ll never know what would have happened,” Meeks said in 2005 upon the Open’s return to Pinehurst. “I’m glad the USGA didn’t have to make a decision (if Mickelson had left to be with Amy). I have my own thoughts. I would have said—and I think Payne would have said—‘You’re not going to give me the U.S. Open because he can’t play tomorrow.’ I’m telling you, Payne would have refused the championship and said, ‘We’ll come back.’ The only fair thing to do under those circumstances would have been to come back at an agreed-to date.”
Of course, Stewart did make the putt, won the Open and handed Mickelson the first of his six second-place finishes in the American national championship.
I’m telling you, Payne would have refused the championship and said, ‘We’ll come back.’ The only fair thing to do under those circumstances would have been to come back at an agreed-to date.” – Tom Meeks, USGA
Mickelson went on to win three Masters (2004, 2006, 2010), one PGA Championship (2005) and just two months ago added the claret jug to his mantel by winning the British Open at Muirfield.
Meanwhile, he’s taken second-places in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002 and 2009, Shinnecock Hills in 2004, Winged Foot in 2006 and Merion in 2013.
As they say, what goes around, comes around. Fifteen years after his narrow miss in 1999, Mickelson will return to Pinehurst in June 2014 with a chance to complete his career Grand Slam.
“The career Grand Slam is the sign of the complete great player,” Mickelson says. “There are five players who have done that and those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them in a different light.”
“That’s going to be an exciting one for Mr. Mickelson,” says Dave Pelz, the short-game guru who’s coached Mickelson for a decade. “He only needs this one to finish the career Grand Slam. It would be a wonderful thing for him. He’s a great player and he deserves it.”
Mickelson’s runner-up finish at Merion in 2013 added extra flavor to the 2014 buildup—Could Mickelson finally capture that elusive Open and do so at Pinehurst? His victory at Muirfield only ramps up the What-If scenarios.