PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The 5-foot birdie putt to force a playoff at Pebble Beach spun out of the left edge of the cup, and Phil Mickelson couldn't believe it. He bent over and braced himself, the left hand on his knee and the right hand on top of the putter.
"It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't make that one," he said.
That brief image of shock and dismay — Mickelson on the green, the ball still visible because it's not in the cup where it's supposed to be — was reminiscent of a half-dozen or so major championships he felt certain he was going to win.
But let's not get carried away.
The Masters is eight weeks down the road.
This was the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a big deal to Mickelson for a variety of reasons, but a loss that most likely won't linger.
It was all set up for the 45-year-old Mickelson to join Mark O'Meara as the only five-time winners of the tournament. More importantly, he was poised to end the longest victory drought of his professional career, which now stands at 53 starts worldwide since he won the claret jug at Muirfield in 2013.
He took a two-shot lead into the final round over Hiroshi Iwata of Japan, with only two wins on the Japan Golf Tour to his credit. None of the six players behind him on the leaderboard was among the top 100 in the world, and they had combined for four career PGA Tour titles.
Mickelson, with 42 victories on the PGA Tour, has been around long enough not to take golf for granted. He worked hard Sunday morning with Andrew Getson, his new coach, and felt good about his swing. But he said later that he felt tight, and it showed in his short game.
The finish was vintage Mickelson.
Right when it looked as though he had shot himself out of it, he made a 10-foot par save with as tough an uphill putt as there is at Pebble Beach on the 16th hole. He poured in a 12-foot putt for birdie on the 17th to get within one shot of Vaughn Taylor. And then he was 60 feet from the hole in two on the par-5 closing hole, a chip and a putt away from forcing a playoff against the No. 447 player in the world, who had gone more than 10 years since his last victory.
The chip was fine. The putt looked good. It just stayed out enough to the left to ride the edge of the cup instead of gravity taking over.
Mickelson was left with the 36th runner-up finish of his career around the world.
"I'm certainly disappointed that I wasn't able to put it together," he said. "But it makes me a little bit more determined to get this back to where I want it. Obviously, I'm not quite there yet. Today I played a little bit tighter than I wanted to. I made a few more mistakes in the short game around the greens. I didn't salvage pars the way I wanted to. And it just tells me I still need a little bit of work. But I'm also very close."
In that respect, it was a big step in the right direction.
Mickelson is sitting out Riviera this week because of his kids' spring break. He will be back for the opening two events of the Florida swing, when the road to the Masters truly begins. Mickelson is all about winning, though in his 25th year on the PGA Tour and already a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, it's all about the majors.
If history is any indication, these chances might not come along as frequently as they once did.
Not only has Mickelson gone 31 months since his last victory, he hasn't really come close to winning very much. He was runner-up in the Masters last year by four shots to Jordan Spieth, and he tied for third in the St. Jude Classic, five shots behind Fabian Gomez.
The year before that, his best chance was the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he was tied for the lead on the back nine until Rory McIlroy pulled ahead and Mickelson's last chance was to chip in for eagle (he almost did). Mickelson also finished one shot behind in Abu Dhabi at the start of 2014.
He was driving the ball great during the Pebble Beach Pro-Am except for the opening round at Spyglass Hill, where he made an adjustment to his driver to increase spin and it backfired. No harm there. He still shot 68 and changed back. His short game was weak Sunday by his standards, particularly out of the bunker on the par-5 second (that cost him an easy chance at birdie) and the fourth and 14th holes (that cost him easy pars).
Mickelson was gracious as ever in defeat, and he left Pebble with as much optimism as disappointment. In four West Coast starts, he finished second and tied for third.
But this was the first time he stood on the 18th hole with a chance to win in 18 months.
The measure of Mickelson will be how long he has to wait for the next one.
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