SAN DIEGO – The fans that remained at Torrey Pines clung to the edges of the 18th fairway to catch a glimpse of Phil Mickelson and Xander Schauffele, or as they’re called along this stretch of SoCal coast Uncle Phil and X.
The USGA rarely misses an opportunity at creativity and with the U.S. Open returning to the South Course, officials went with a Southern California theme of Mickelson, Schauffele and Burbank’s Max Homa for Rounds 1 and 2. With apologies to Homa, it was the San Diego sons that kept the partisan crowd around well past dinner.
As Mickelson and Schauffele made their way to the final green, the parallel was impossible to ignore as the past and present of the 619 reached the putting surface.
For Schauffele, this is his fifth national championship and another opportunity to add to his U.S. Open resume that already includes a tie for third, fifth (twice) and sixth. He was born in La Jolla, played his high school golf at Torrey Pines and was a star at San Diego State.
“I was walking down the first fairway today with my dad and we were joking about how six or seven years ago, when they announced this site here on TV, my dad and I were sitting on the couch, and we were like, Hey, we need to do whatever we can to get into this tournament,” Schauffele said earlier this week. “Here we are sitting here trying to win the thing.”
That he covered the first two trips around the South Course alongside Uncle Phil only added to the experience. Although the two have become frequent practice-round partners and Lefty even credited Schauffele following Mickelson's PGA win, for keeping him motivated, the 27-year-old Schauffele could still appreciate the moment as the duo put the finishing touches on their second rounds.
When Schauffele would come out to the Farmers Insurance Open as a junior, it was Lefty he wanted to see. “Of course. He was a local hero here, right alongside Tiger growing up, so I did get to see a lot of him when I was younger,” he said.
Schauffele saw the best of Mickelson on Friday. He wasn’t perfect, but then Lefty rarely is. Instead, it was a gritty performance to secure a spot on the weekend tee sheet.
The freshly minted 51-year-old made the turn safely inside the cut but, as is normally the case with Lefty, there was nothing mundane about his finish. He fanned his tee shot at No. 11 left of everything – the green, the TV tower, even the crowd which has been estimated at 10,000 per day (and it seemed like all 10K were watching Phil).
He missed the fairway at No. 12 and hooked his approach well right of the green before scrambling for par. At No. 13, it was another approach into the rough and another clutch par putt (4 feet). There was a 14-footer for par at the 15th hole and an 11-footer for par at the 16th hole.
If his late-in-life PGA Championship has given Mickelson a new competitive lease, know that it hasn’t dulled the sharp edges. He still only knows one way to play the game.
“I struck the ball really well, and it made it a lot easier. I was able to play aggressively,” he said.
If “aggressive” isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you’re playing U.S. Open word association, know that Mickelson has just one speed.
Even during his eventful closing nine holes it wasn’t the missed shots that he recalled so much as it was the missed opportunities. Where some see unneeded stress, Lefty sees a chance to do something special.
He wasn’t trying to make the cut. He was trying to get into contention in the one event that remains on his “to do” list.
“The last few holes, I tried to get a few close and kind of short-sided myself a couple times,” shrugged Mickelson, as if there was any other way to play the game. “[No.] 15, trying to cut a 7-iron over there to that pin. [No.] 16, trying to hook one in and went just long. I left myself some challenging up-and-downs, and I ended up making the putts, which felt good.”
The crowd that lingered around the 18th green as sunset approached and the June gloom cold settled in, were treated to a show. After finding a rare fairway off the tee, Mickelson’s second shot at the par 5 carried the water hazard by less than two paces, setting up a 62-foot eagle putt. Never a dull moment with the Thrill.
Mickelson two-putted the last for a 2-under 69 and a 2-over total. Schauffele parred the last for a 71 and a share of seventh place 2 under.
The hardy and homers cheered Uncle Phil and X with equal zeal – the past and present of the 619.