Archive for Wednesday, June 23, 1999

WHAT IF STEWART HAD MISSED?

June 23, 1999

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Just think if Payne Stewart had missed.

His 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole provided the most thrilling finish in the history of the U.S. Open. Since it was first played in 1895, no one had ever won with a putt that long on the last hole of regulation.

But think of the drama that awaited had Stewart missed that putt and gone to an 18-hole playoff the next day with Phil Mickelson.

There's a good chance Stewart might have been playing alone.

No one will ever know if Amy Mickelson really would have dialed her husband's pager number and punched in the secret code that signaled she was going into labor.

Not everyone was convinced Mickelson would have hurried off Pinehurst No. 2, even though he had a private plane and a co-pilot on standby all week. But even Mickelson doubted the baby would arrive nine days early.

Amanda Brynn Mickelson was born at 6:11 p.m. PDT Monday in Arizona, 20 1/2 inches long and weighing 7 pounds, 4 ounces. Mother and daughter are both healthy.

The father was there for the whole thing, and says he would have been regardless.

"I would not have been playing," Mickelson said Tuesday. "I would definitely have come home, no question."

But would he have known to come home?

Amy has been with him for most of his 13 victories on the PGA Tour, the most of any active player who has yet to win a major championship. She knows what a major would mean to Mickelson. She shared the disappointment of Shinnecock Hills in the '95 Open and Valhalla in the '96 PGA Championship.

Would she really have paged him?

"I will answer that for her in simple terms," Mickelson said. "She had better have told me, no matter when or what time. This is where we are, and that's what would have happened. We had a deal before the U.S. Open as to what would happen, and I was going to be there with her no matter what."

None of that came to pass.

Stewart won the U.S. Open with indubitable determination, making clutch putts on the last three holes to bury the memory of his failure the previous year at Olympic Club.

Mickelson was the runner-up by one stroke after missing two 8-foot putts on the 16th and 17th holes and a 25-foot putt on the last.

Tiger Woods tied for third. He missed a 5-foot par putt on the 17th and a 25-foot birdie putt on the last hole, believing that any one of those putts might have gotten him into a playoff. That's one reason he was glad to see Stewart make his par putt on No. 18.

"It would have been tough sleeping for the next few nights," he said.

How tough would that have been for Mickelson?

As the week went on, Amy kept getting good reports from the doctor, and the prospect of Mickelson leaving early became less of a distraction.

But just suppose there had been an 18-hole playoff.

Amy's water broke shortly before noon EDT, about the time Mickelson would have been shaking Stewart's hand on the first tee and wishing him luck. She went into labor a little after 3 p.m. They would have been somewhere around the par-3 15th. Maybe Mickelson would have had a two-stroke lead.

BEEP!

Stay or go?

Mickelson had been presented with every hypothetical situation during the week. What if he were leading on Sunday? What if he were on the back nine?

"I'm out of here," he always said.

The record books would have shown Mickelson with a WD. Stewart would have had to play the round by himself so he could post a score. The bigger story would have been Mickelson's devotion to his wife and daughter over a moment that could have defined his career.

Even after Stewart had won, Mickelson heard one last scenario.

It's one thing to walk off Pinehurst in the middle of the final round, when the Open was still up for grabs among Stewart, Mickelson, Woods and Vijay Singh. It's quite another to leave during a playoff and let the other player win by default.

"Yeah," Mickelson replied, "but come middle of June next year, we're going to have another Open."

Mickelson didn't get to hold the U.S. Open championship cup Sunday. One day later, he was holding something far more precious.

Somehow, that made one of the greatest U.S. Opens even better.

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