As the crowd roared deafeningly, the victor used both hands to grab the head of the stunned, vanquished, and glassy-eyed opponent.
If this were one of those Hollywood epics involving some futuristic dystopia, the victor would have given his opponent’s head a quick and vicious twist, and the neck would have sickenly, audibly snapped, and the opponent would have sunk, dead, to the ground.
But this wasn’t Hollywood. The victor leaned close and, smiling and laughing, said this to his opponent: “You’re gonna be a daddy!!!!”
The scene was the final green of the 1999 U.S. Open, ten years ago this week. The victor was Payne Stewart, an irrepressible free spirit who would die in a plane crash later that fall. The vanquished was Phil Mickelson, who famously had said he would leave the course even if he were leading in the final round if he got word that his wife Amy, expecting their first child, had gone into labor.
Stewart, a sometimes abrasive character early in his career who had experienced a much-praised attitudinal shift as he himself had experienced the joys of being a dad, had made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to snatch victory from Mickelson. Yet, as Stewart began celebrating, his first thought was to tip his hat to the younger man’s impending fatherhood. As it was, Amy Mickelson gave birth the very next day.
The scene of Mickelson’s face in Stewart’s hands was acclaimed as one of the more poignant moments in modern sports history — and that was even before Stewart’s tragic death, and before Mickelson’s series of other heartbreaks at the U.S. Open. In retrospect, the moment looks not just poignant but epochal.
Here we are, ten years later, and Phil and Amy Mickelson are again in the news. This time, their news is sad rather than joyful. Amy, a beloved figure on tour for her outgoing manner and charitable initiatives, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Early reports were that Phil would not even compete in the Open, but later diagnoses provided a better (if still worrisome) prognosis for Amy’s potential recovery without immediately debilitating treatment. So, with an eye back home and a nervous heart, Phil will tee it up after all.
Poetic justice would give him the title.
Sure, the man has a certifiable record of … well, of being a doofus. His final hole double-bogey to blow his lead in the 2006 U.S. Open was perhaps the most lame-brained collapse not committed by a Frenchman in all the decades of televised sports. And that collapse was, well, par for his course at least in terms of his oft-bizarre decision-making at times of high drama.
Many reports also question whether his public “aw-shucks” affability is a bit of an act.
Well, in this case, who cares? His devotion to wife Amy is certainly real, and his generosity is, too.
Set up as his nemesis, again, is Tiger Woods. Always Tiger. Tiger comes in wearing a unique triple crown. He won the Open the last time it was played at this week’s venue, Bethpage Black, back in 2002. (Yes, Mickelson was runner-up.) He won the Open last year, in his incredibly thrilling and supernaturally gritty 19-hole playoff over the highly likable Rocco Mediate while he, Tiger, sported both a torn knee cartilage and a bad stress fracture in the same leg. And Tiger won the last tournament he played, just two weeks ago — at the course and tournament designed and hosted by the game’s greatest-ever professional champion, Jack Nicklaus.
So Tiger is a title defender on all three levels, and on a rocket ride toward every all-time record in the game of golf. Surely the same script will play out as has always played out before, right? Tiger as champion, Phil as phailed phoil, phlailing away in near-miss heartbreak right at the end.
Well, here’s saying the fickle gods of golf this time won’t let it happen. Sure, Tiger Woods is mostly an admirable character. He does good work with his youth foundation, and he is a wonderful supporter of all who serve in this nation’s uniforms. But if he wins this year, especially with Mickelson as a bridesmaid, then this whole world should give up forever on the cause of cosmic justice.
I write not as a particular fan of Phil — I’m not. But as a New Orleanian, I can’t stop myself from comparing Mickelson’s response to Hurricane Katrina with that of Woods. Mickelson played in the New Orleans tour stop the year immediately following Katrina, knowing that his support could make a huge difference for the tournament’s success. He then donated $250,000 out of his own pocket for Katrina relief — and followed up with equal contributions from his charitable foundation each of the next two years as well.
As for Tiger Woods, he never has played the New Orleans tourney. Not once. Not even after Katrina, when he of all people could have turned the beleaguered city’s event into a showcase for the world. And not the next year, or the year after, or the year after that. Never.
His absences have been just, well, wrong. Inexcusable.
But anyway, back to the Open. Mickelson is 39 now. He presumably doesn’t have more than another four or five years of being enough at the top of his game to actually win a brutal U.S. Open test. He has finished second four times, without ever raising the trophy. Time’s-a-wasting.
Others, of course, could win. Masters champion Angel Cabrera won the Open in 2007. Geoff Ogilvy, who found the trophy in his lap when Phil phlicked it away in the aforementioned 2006 debacle, already has won two tournaments this year. Two-time Open champion Ernie Els is finally hitting the ball brilliantly again, and needs only to find his putting stroke to contend. Two-time Open champion Retief Goosen won a tourney earlier this year and is at the ready, while England’s Paul Casey may be the hottest man in golf.
None of those stories would be satisfying though. Nor would another Woods win — after last year’s heroics, another Woods victory would seem ho-hum, and far, far too predictable.
And certainly not cosmic justice.
Fans should keep returning to that photo of Payne Stewart, face alight in joy, holding Mickelson’s own face in his hands while telling him that fatherhood beats a trophy any day. Methinks Stewart, looking down from heaven, has one dispensation left.
He used his first one just months after his death when his best friend Paul Azinger, once one of the game’s very best players until his life was threatened with serious cancer at age 33, came out of nowhere to win the Hawaiian Open in his very first tourney after Stewart’s death. It was the first time in the six years since his cancer that Azinger won a title — and he hasn’t won one since.
The second dispensation again involved Azinger. For years one of the great highlight shots used to open golf telecasts was the one of Azinger, head barely peaking above the lip of a deep, deep bunker on the 18th green of Nicklaus’s Muirfield Village course, erupting in joyful shock when his sand shot trickled sideways into the cup to beat Stewart by one stroke in the 1993 Memorial Tournament, just months before Azinger’s cancer diagnosis. Fast forward to the 2002 Ryder Cup, the first one after Stewart’s death, on the final hole, with the U.S. team on the verge of defeat. Azinger again was bunkered, deep, and again he faced a sharply sideways-leaning green. The shot was almost identical to the one that beat his pal Stewart nine years earlier — and only if Azinger holed it would the U.S. squad stay alive in the competition.
If a viewer didn’t see Stewart reach down from heaven to shove that ball in the cup, they weren’t looking closely enough. ‘Zinger’s heroics, alas, were not enough: The Americans still lost, a few minutes later. But Zinger had done his part to ward off defeat, in a shot so reminiscent of his iconic moment against Stewart that it was spooky.
Well, here’s saying that Stewart has been saving his last dispensation for seven more years. Here’s saying he intends, through some blessed means beyond our knowing, to keep Phil Mickelson’s head on straight down the stretch. Here is Stewart, holding Mickelson’s head in both hands. Here is Stewart, saying that the ten-year anniversary is the time to repay the debt of sportsmen — and to somebody else haunted by cancer. Here is Payne Stewart, helping Phil Mickelson overcome his years of frustration, whispering into the younger man’s ear.
What is he saying?
“You’re a good husband, and now you’re a champion. Tell Amy that this one is for her.”
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