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Three-woods, alas, can be hit off line, the same as drivers. Mickelson found only six fairways and seven greens on Friday afternoon, and if it weren't for his scrambling skills he might have shot 80 instead of 75. (One memorable Mickelsave hinged on a cliffhanger lob from the hazard behind and below the 3rd green, followed by a 30-foot putt over a ridge for his par.) It wasn't until the next day, though, that Mickelson's dream died. Lying 2 in the fairway on the par-5 13th, he attacked the front pin with his L-wedge from 80 yards, only to see the ball roll back to his feet. Switching to his 64-degree sand wedge, he repeated the feat not once, but twice, as if to prove that it was no fluke.
"Well, gosh, it's a birdie hole," he said afterward, the hurt of the four-jack approach and subsequent three-putt still showing in his eyes. "If I make birdie there, I shoot even par for the day, and I would be within striking distance." As for his decision to return the driver to his bag for the weekend, Mickelson pleaded nolo contendere. "I've lost Opens, like at Winged Foot, where I didn't hit it in the fairway hitting drivers. I thought that I would try another club here, and it simply didn't work out. I still missed them."
That was just one of the ways this U.S. Open was lost. First-round leader Justin Hicks, a 33-year-old striver whose best Nationwide tour finish of 2008 is a 28th at the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship, fell to earth with a second-round 80. Veteran Tour star Davis Love III, a former PGA champion, came through sectional qualifying and sniffed the lead as late as his back nine on Saturday, only to drop off the twig with a 76--78 finish. Vijay Singh fell afoul of the middle rounds (78--76) and slipped away without being noticed.
It's a frame of mind, losing. Some, like British Open champion Padraig Harrington (a first-round 78) and recent Players winner Sergio García (same round, 76), got off to bad starts and never recovered. "Kind of a tale of two halves," as Harrington put it. Others, like second-year Tour player John Merrick (tie for sixth) and two-time Tour winner D.J. Trahan (tie for fourth), refused to see themselves as losers. "This is the kind of theater you dream about when you're a kid," said Trahan, who wore a red-and-black shirt on Sunday and pumped his arm, Tiger-style, when he birdied the 72nd hole. "It's amazing to be out there with all those people and all the noise. It's so much fun."
Only, losing isn't fun. (See above.) This time, the loser who best expressed the sublime anguish of the close call was five-time Ryder Cupper Lee Westwood, 35, who overcame a lost ball on the 13th hole but couldn't make his Go Directly to Monday putt disappear on the final green. "It's sickening not to be in the playoff tomorrow," said the 18-time Euro tour winner, adding, "I think that I've proved to myself and a few others that I think there is a major championship in me." The second think made you wonder if Westwood was really that confident of another chance.
But that's how it goes, the losing game. Mickelson, the biggest loser, shot a final-round 68 to come in 18th and afterward was all smiles. He praised the golf course, the city, the county and the air he breathed, and he promised to do better at his next major, the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in England. But Mickelson was off the course and out of mind before Woods, Westwood and Rocco Mediate had even teed off. Asked by a reporter if he planned to watch the rest of the tournament, Mickelson answered with a smile. "I'll probably watch some of it, yeah. It's kind of my punishment."
As if losing weren't punishment enough.
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