Bill Dwyre

Merion won this poignant U.S. Open, even if Phil Mickelson didn't

Justin Rose made a pair of back-nine birdies to beat crowd favorite Phil Mickelson's eagle in a U.S. Open in which the golf course perfected the plot twists.

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ARDMORE, Pa. — It is hard to know whether this year's U.S. Open golf tournament will be remembered for Justin Rose's victory or Phil Mickelson's defeat.

Rose is 32 years old, an Englishman born in South Africa, who was a prodigy as early as 17 with his tie for fourth place as an amateur in the 1998 British Open. Recently, he has been seen as somebody who hasn't won a major but certainly should.

Now he has, making birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 and holding on for a one-shot victory with his closing 70, an even-par finale that left him at an unusual 72-hole winning total of one-over 281.

The real answer to how this U.S. Open will be remembered may rest with the course it was played on, Merion Golf Club, which yielded nothing. If Rose won, so did Merion. The U.S. Golf Assn. sets its courses for maximum challenge. Merion was certainly that.

The best rounds were 67s, by Mickelson the first day, Billy Horschel on Friday, Rickie Fowler on Saturday, and Jason Dufner and Hideki Matsuyama on Sunday. All week, players were bewitched on Merion's devious greens and bewildered in its unforgiving rough.

Among the contenders Sunday, Horschel shot 74, Luke Donald 75, Steve Stricker 76 and Charl Schwartzel 78. The Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, shot 74 and 76. Woods drove out of bounds on No. 2 and took an 8. McIlroy hit into the same water hazard twice and bent his club in anger.

"It's just what the U.S. Open does to you," McIlroy said.

It has seldom treated anybody worse than the popular Mickelson, who finished tied for second with Jason Day at three over. That marked the sixth time Mickelson has gone home with a silver medal from this event.

The man who has won three Masters titles and one PGA said, "If I never win this tournament, I will look back on the U.S. Open and just think of heartbreak."

His last gasp was a reprise of a scene from the final hole of the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Just as he had been that year, with Bubba Watson in the clubhouse a shot ahead as Rose was now, Mickelson was 65 yards away and needed to pitch in to tie. He sent caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay up to hold the pin, took dead aim and rolled his shot right past the cup.

He had seemed destined to win here. The story was just too good. He couldn't finish second again, could he? He was hitting the ball beautifully and making as many putts as everybody else, which wasn't many.

He had flown home to San Diego to attend his daughter's eighth-grade graduation and arrived back only 3 1/2 hours before his 7 a.m. tee time Thursday. Then he shot 67 for the lead. His 43rd birthday was Sunday. That was also Father's Day. Newspaper front pages were carving out room for Monday morning's editions.

The story got even better when Mickelson, after two double bogeys on the front nine, knocked in a 65-yard pitch for eagle on the par-four 10th. Now it seemed meant to be. But it wasn't.

Rose, playing in his seventh U.S. Open with a previous best fifth-place finish, heard the crowd roaring behind him, knew Mickelson had done something magical, and answered with his two birdies.

When he tapped in for par on the difficult 18th, he fought to control his emotions. He looked to the sky, pointed there and teared up.

"Father's Day was not lost on me," he said. "…Today was about him."

His father, Ken, had introduced him to golf, moved the family to England for more opportunities when Justin was 5 and coached his son so well that Justin broke 70 by age 11. Ken died of leukemia in 2002. That was the year Rose broke through to win four international tournaments. Now, he is a regular on the European Ryder Cup team and is No. 5 in the world.

On the 18th hole, "I knew Phil had two holes to play," Rose said. "But that was my time. The clouds had parted."

If 2013 at Merion is to go down as the day Rose did and Mickelson didn't — again — it will also trigger memories of the strange.

Besides Woods' 8 and McIlroy's bent club, there was "Steady Eddie" Stricker, hitting a hacker's shank on No. 2. There was Donald hitting a tournament volunteer in the head with an errant shot and, a bit later, taking off a shoe and sock to stand in a creek and hit.

Then there was the hole in one on the 229-yard No. 17 by qualifying pro Shawn Stefani, which hit the hill, rolled down and dribbled slowly into the cup. Stefani, still 19 over with the ace on his card, appropriately kissed the grass on the hill. It was the first ace in five U.S. Opens at Merion.

Also deserving a mention were Horschel's octopus pants.

Sunday, Merion had it all: a trophy for Rose to raise and, sadly, another slap in the face for Mickelson.

bill.dwyre @latimes.com

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