Published June 14, 2011
As the US Open approaches, three recent articles lament the performances of high profile golfers in majors. Not golfers who never won (like Kenny Perry) or one time winners (Davis Love III) or even two time major winners whose talent took a back seat to excesses (John Daly). Instead, the articles speak of the ‘failures' of Ernie Els (three majors), Phil Mickelson (four) and Tiger Woods (fourteen). What these articles forget are facts every one of us knows inherently but has been blurred during the Tiger era (4/10/1997-8/16/2009); golf is hard and winning majors is harder.
For fun, I've looked at the major records of Mickelson and Els and pulled out every time they finished in the top five without winning to determine how many can be ‘blamed' on respective failures.
First, Phil Mickelson:
1994 PGA Championship (3rd)
Nick Price, the #1 golfer in the world at that time, won by 6 shots. Mickelson was 24. He shouldn't have won.
1995 US Open (T-4th)
Corey Pavin shot a 68 a Shinnecock, besting Greg Norman by two. Phil shot a 74, tied for the worst round anyone in contention shot that day with Tom Lehman. He could have done better, but I don't see this as a tournament he had and then lost.
1996 Masters (3rd)
Mickelson was seven strokes behind Greg Norman after three rounds. I (and I'm certain Nick Faldo) sure you remember what happened next. This was the major Norman threw away, not Mickelson.
1999 US Open (2nd)
The year Payne Stewart won his only major. When you shoot even par on an US Open Sunday and lose because the guy you are paired with in the final round sinks a 15-footer to win the tournament you didn't lose; the other guy won.
2001 Masters (3rd)
The final leg of the Tiger Slam. I guess Phil had at that time the talent to beat Tiger, but who at that time thought Phil should have beaten Tiger. Phil shot two under during the final round; Tiger shot four under.
2001 PGA Championship (2nd)
David Toms beats Phil by one stroke to win his only major to date. Phil was two strokes down to Toms going into the final round and bested his playing partner that day by one stroke (68 to 69). You can make the argument that a player of Mickelson's talent and pedigree shouldn't be losing to David Toms. That is if you ignore David Toms won four times on the US PGA Tour between 1999 and the 2001 PGA. For argument's sake, we will put this in the Phil should have won this category.
2002 Masters (3rd)
Mickelson started four strokes behind eventual winner Tiger Woods going into the final round and finished four strokes behind Woods. As a fan of the New York Knicks in the 90s, I'm familiar with the ‘your direct competitor is one of the best to ever play the game and you can't quite get buy him' vibe Mickelson is suffering through at this point.
2002 US Open (2nd)
Tiger Woods led wire to wire. Mickelson went 67-70 over the weekend on a very difficult Bethpage Black just to lose by three strokes. Once again I say this; was Phil supposed to beat Tiger?
2003 Masters (3rd)
Mike Weir wins his only major to date in a playoff with Len Mattiace. Phil finished two strokes out of the playoff. Mickelson's personal boogeyman Tiger Woods was briefly a factor Saturday but a 75 Sunday reduced him to also-ran. Under the ‘your better than these guys' theory, we will reluctantly put this in the category of majors he should have won.
2004 US Open (2nd)
Hoo-boy. Phil was leading the whole shooting match by one stroke over defending champion Retief Goosen when he double bogeyed the par three 17th, including 3 putting from 5 feet. Even with the USGA doing such a poor job maintaining the course they had to hose down greens during play to make them playable, this is a red letter example of Mickelson letting a major slip away.
2004 British Open (3rd)
The only time in his career Mickelson finished in the top five in this tournament. He was one stroke outside the Todd Hamilton/Ernie Els playoff. It shouldn't have been that close; Hamilton bogeyed the final hole in regulation and Els had a 12 foot putt for birdie to win. His lack of success before and after in the British Isles would lead us to believe Phil wasn't supposed to win here.
2006 US Open (T-2nd)
Hoo-boy part 2. Mickelson has won the previous two majors. After 71 holes at Winged Foot, Mickelson (who to that point had hit 2 of 13 fairways) needed par to win and bogey to force a playoff. He did neither, scoring a double bogey that will live in infamy. While both Colin Montgomerie and Jim Furyk also vomited over themselves on the final hole, Mickelson almost literally had the trophy in his hands and threw it away.
2008 Masters (T-5th)
After a third round 75 put him nine strokes back, Mickelson was never a true contender.
2009 Masters (5th)
Another backdoor top five as Mickelson was never in contention until a final round 67 shot him up the leaderboard.
2009 US Open (T-2nd)
Mickelson was in contention for the breadth of the tournament but was never in a position of strength on the leaderboard where you could say he threw the tournament away. Lucas Glover wins at Bethpage.
2010 US Open (T-4th)
Another backdoor top five as Mickelson was 7 strokes behind Dustin Johnson going into the final round and four strokes behind eventual winner Graeme McDowell. In fact, if Johnson doesn't fail spectacularly with an 82 in the final round on a course (Pebble Beach) he has been victorious on in 2009 and 2010, there quite probably wouldn't be a top five to talk about.
So of the 16 times Phil Mickelson posted a top five in a major, only two were obvious choke jobs. Another two could either be considered Phil not playing to his potential or others playing past theirs. The other 12 were tournaments he would not be expected to win.
As for Ernie Els:
1992 British Open (T-5th)
The 22 year old future Hall of Famer, in only his second major (he missed the cut in his first British Open in 1989) placed a very respectable 5th. Consensus #1 Nick Faldo took the title. Not a major Els was at all expected to win.
1995 PGA Championship (T-3rd)
After leading the tournament by three strokes after round three, Els shot a 72 on a day where the field shot under par (par at Riviera was 71), allowing him to be overtaken by both Colin Montgomerie and eventual winner Steve Elkington. Els' 72 was the second highest final round score of anyone why finished in the top twenty (Mark O'Meara shot a 73). While Montgomerie will be a Hall of Famer and Elkington was a very solid pro, Els (who by then had won his first major) let this one slip away.
1996 US Open (T-5th)
Steve Jones. Steve Jones? I honestly don't know what to say about this major. There was nothing particularly outstanding about this tournament, outside it being a major. It looks like the winner was Oakland Hills, as only three players shot under par. Under those kinds of conditions, I am loathe to say Els lost it; Jones may have just survived it a little better.
1996 British Open (T-2nd)
Tom Lehman won this tournament with a third round 64. And he needed almost every one of the six stoke lead (eight over Els) when he limped in with a two over par 73. Els shot a four under par 67 on Sunday. Els didn't lose this one.
2000 Masters (2nd)
A poor third round (74) knocked Els four strokes behind eventual winner Vijay Singh, a deficit he was unable to overcome. This one is is toss-up; shooting 74s when you are in contention for a major isn't what you would call getting it done, but it isn't like the winner just picked up club a couple of years before.
2000 US Open (T-2nd)
Tiger. Pebble. You could have taken the DNA of Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and genetically engineered a golfer; no one was beating Tiger that weekend. Els gets a pass.
2000 British Open (T-2nd)
That damn Tiger again. An eight stroke victory in St. Andrews to match the fifteen stroke victory in the previous major. If Earl Woods was a bowler, Ernie Els could possibly be working on his fourth major.
2001 British Open (T-3rd)
No disasters as Els shot par or better for all rounds, including 67-69 on the weekend. David Duval just played better on his way to #1 in the world.
2002 Masters (T-5th)
After a 66 in the third round by Tiger Woods (which put him in a tie for the lead with Retief Goosen), Els was four strokes back. This tournament I remember; Tiger put it in cruise control and told his competitors to come get him. On a day where the scoring was the hardest of the tournament (none of the players that finished in the top ten shot under 70), no one could. Once again I content that, while Els has bested Woods, I don't recall a time when Els was supposed to beat Woods.
2004 Masters (2nd)
When Phil Mickelson had to birdie to 72nd hole of the tournament to keep Els out of a potential playoff, when Els shoots a final round 67 to put pressure on the 54 hole co-leader, you tip your hat to the winner and repeat the mantra; winning Majors is hard.
2004 British Open (2nd)
On one hand, Els shot four rounds in the 60s and ran into the career tournament of Todd Hamilton (which included a 30 foot chip in for birdie on the par-3 14th Sunday). On the other hand, Ernie had a 12 footer to win the tournament on the last hole of regulation (after Hamilton made hash of the hole for bogey) and shot one over during the four hole playoff (allowing Hamilton to win with four pars). Since I do not have three hands, I'll put this one in the ‘Ernie should have won' group.
NOTE: Els tore up his knee in July 2005 sailing with his family.
2006 British Open (3rd)
Tiger Woods won at Royal Liverpool in a performance best remembered for his lack of use of driver. Els was one stroke behind Woods after the second and third rounds, but couldn't match Tiger's final round five under par 67 (although he did shoot under par in the final round). The fourth time on the list Tiger beat Els. When writers talk about how the current generation of golfers doesn't have the scar tissue of Tiger beating them the previous generation does, they should just show a picture of Ernie Els.
2007 PGA Championship (3rd)
Stop me if you've heard this one. Tiger Woods won by two strokes over Woody Austin and three strokes over Ernie Els. A 63 in the second round gave Tiger a lead he would not relinquish. Els shot 69-66 on the weekend at Southern Hills, but it wasn't enough to catch Woods. Only the former Elin Nordegren can say Tiger did her wrong more times than Ernie Els.
Of the 13 times Els contended in majors (not of course counting his three wins), two losses could be considered losing serve, five were at the hands of his personal Cablinasian bogeyman and the remaining six can be labeled ‘that's golf'.
So, besides the fact I should have played with my kids more than Wikipedia the last two days, have we hopefully learned? That in golf, like life, nothing is guaranteed. That, in the current world where LeBron James is considered a total failure for only getting to the NBA Finals, we may have lost perspective. And that those who assume they know what should have happened aren't always looking at what did.