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To call the U.S. Open the best tournament of 2006 is accurate but not complete. It was also the best train wreck, the best a-star-is-born moment and, more than anything, one of the best examples of how thrilling major-championship golf can be, especially when the body count starts to rise during a pressure-packed final round. � It's hard to remember now, given his post-Open stupor, but Phil Mickelson roared into Winged Foot as the biggest thing in golf. He had won two consecutive majors, and 69 holes into the Open he looked as if he would join Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods to become only the third player to win three consecutive majors in which he played. Though his swing deserted him early in the final round, Mickelson forged a two-stroke lead with three holes to play, thanks to magnificent work on and around the greens.
As Phil the Thrill was performing his high-wire act, the tension was building ahead of him. Jim Furyk, the game's preeminent Steady Eddie, missed a short putt on the 72nd hole to finish six over. The foreboding bogey was part of a wild 11-minute run during which Colin Montgomerie made a 40-footer at the 17th, Mickelson bogeyed 16, and Geoff Ogilvy rattled in a chip for par on 17. The bang-bang-bang-bang sequence left Mickelson and Monty tied for the lead at four over, Ogilvy one back and Johnny Miller almost hyperventilating in the NBC tower.
All three contenders would meet their fate on the par-4 18th, a dogleg left with an anorexic fairway and a severely elevated green. After a perfect drive, Montgomerie, the star-crossed Scot, needed only to hit a seven-iron and two-putt, and a major title could be his at last. A career distilled into one swing, and Monty, 43, shrank from the enormity of the opportunity, uncorking a half-chunk short and right of the green. He was done, though it took a so-so chip and three agonizing putts to make it official.
Ogilvy, the lanky Australian, had been quietly hanging around. Laying two short of the 18th green after his near-perfect approach spun off the putting surface, he faced his own do-or-die shot. In a showing of supreme talent and touch and confidence, he responded with a perfect pitch that stopped six feet from the hole. When Ogilvy buried the putt, Mickelson needed a par at the last to win his first national championship.
It's a fun debate: Which of Mickelson's ensuing six shots was the most egregious? After slicing his drive off the roof of a corporate tent, he had a clean lie in the left rough, 201 yards from the hole with a towering elm 50 yards in front of him. To fade a three-iron onto the green would have been a heroic effort, but getting his ball in position to save par was not that tough a play. Mickelson's shot was wide left immediately off the club face, striking the tree squarely on the trunk. The shocking thwack seemed to echo forever, and the ball rolled back at Mickelson, mockingly. He needed four more blows to complete his double bogey. Ogilvy, 29, won the championship while sucking down a yellow sports drink in the clubhouse.
Mickelson's folly was the moment on which the season flipped. Woods had been the story early in Open week, as he returned to competition after taking nine weeks off to be with and then grieve for his father, Earl, who died of cancer a month and a half before the Open. Still reeling, Woods missed the cut--his first in a major since he turned pro--and as he left town many wondered if he would be a factor for the rest of the year.
Seemingly recharged by his chief rival's undoing, Woods regrouped in time for the British Open, played five weeks later, where he carved up the quirky links at Hoylake with breathtaking precision. Woods's win begat the best moment of the year, a tearful hug with his caddie on the final green, when for an instant the world's most famous athlete was just a boy who missed his pop.
So, to recap: Tiger wins, Phil loses and both create indelible memories in their heartache.