ARDMORE, Pa.—Phil Mickelson nearly holed out his approach shot on the par-four eighth hole on Friday, settling for a quick but incredibly makeable birdie putt instead.
Phil missed the putt. He wasn't happy about it at all.
Usually smiling as he cascades through the gallery, Mickelson was brooding, muttering to himself the entire walk to the ninth tee while carrying his putter, practicing strokes on the tee box as he waited to hit his next shot.
Phil hit a fantastic tee shot on the long par-three ninth. He missed the putt again.
Phil missed another makeable putt on 11 and burned the edge with his birdie putt on 12 before inexplicably missing the comebacker, settling for a disappointing bogey.
Mickelson stepped to the 13th tee box reeling from the three-putt on 12 and put his tee shot over the green, into the bunker. In true Mickelson-like fashion, he nearly drained the bunker shot, just lipping out before rolling 20 feet past. Mickelson missed the putt, barely, for another bogey.
When he hit the hardest stretch on the golf course, however, the stroke seemed to come back. He made pars on the 14th through 17th holes before sinking a fantastic birdie putt on the 18th green after the horn to stop play had sounded, daylight twinkling away on the horizon. It was a great finish for Mickelson, but hardly indicative of how he was rolling it for most of his second round.
"It was a touch off," Mickelson told me after the round. "I struggled with a lot of short putts today. And I've been putting really well.
"So hopefully tomorrow that—today will be an anomaly on the greens, I'll get it back tomorrow. I've been playing well. Today should not have been an over par round as well as I played."
Mickelson did admit that it was very difficult to putt on the greens at Merion after so much use the past few days.
"Quite honestly, after we had two waves of players going through, the greens weren't like they were yesterday morning. They were just pristine. With the field cut in half, I expect they'll be as pure as they were yesterday for us throughout the day."
While there may have been a few slight imperfections in the green, it was Mickelson's putter being less than perfect that was the bigger issue. He did explain why those green issues could impact the putting on surfaces this slick.
"When the greens are very fast like this and you have soft greens that get indentations and spikes and so forth, it's very hard to make putts because you can't hit them firm enough to hold the line."
Other than the poor tee shot on 13, Mickelson played a nearly flawless round from tee to green on Friday. Truly, had he not burned a few edges and lipped a few putts out, he could have carded as least an even-par 70 and potentially, with a little luck, a legitimate 68.
Imagine a four-shot swing on Phil's round on Friday. Imagine Phil starting the third round of the U.S. Open not tied for the lead, but four shots clear of the field, five under. That is how good he played on Friday, but also how close he was to something really special.
You know, I almost wrote that's how good he played, but how poorly he putted, but that wouldn't be fair. He didn't actually putt all that poorly. Other players would miss makeable putts and have the ball roll four or five feet past the hole. Phil's pace was impeccable all day, and other than the silly three-putt on the 12th hole, there really weren't any enormous mistakes on the greens.
Phil missed some putts, but he played well enough that he was missing birdie putts, not par putts. That had to be a relief.
"I got shut out today," Phil told the assembled reporters after his round. "I played really well. Even though I shot two‑over, it was the birdie opportunities that I didn't capitalize on. Had I made one on two or that birdie on eight or nine or 11, I would have changed kind of the momentum of the round.
"I played well today even though I didn't feel the score was what I thought it should be."
The misses didn't cost him too much, as he is still tied for the lead heading into the weekend with some of the field still finishing up their second round. And as many putts as he left on the course on Friday, he got the one that mattered most.
He got the last one. On Saturday, Phil just has to concentrate on getting the next.
Other Phil Notes
• Phil hit another ball in the creek on the fifth hole on Friday. He saved par again. He may want to aim to the right on Saturday.
• On the sixth hole, an enormous groundhog ran out of the trees, crossed the fairway and ran into the gallery, much to everyone's delight. When he ran back across the other way, one clever fan yelled "Punxsutawney Phil," which Mickelson (and all of us) thought was pretty hilarious.
• While all players snack during their rounds to keep energy up, Mickelson had what looked like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the seventh tee. It had the most jelly of any sandwich I have ever seen.
• Not to be outdone, Mickelson's playing partner, Steve Stricker, ate an apple on the 11th hole, putting it on the fairway between shots before rubbing it off on his pants and taking another bite. Thankfully, Phil didn't put the jelly sandwich on the fairway. The mud is sticky enough.