Phil Mickelson left it all on the course

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even in defeat, there typically are smiles, signs of optimism from Phil Mickelson. A cynic would suggest he is used to it, golf being that kind of game. Others would say that's Phil being Phil, looking on the bright side. But in the darkness Sunday evening, it was hard for Phil to see much light.

He had given it all he had at Valhalla, burning the edges on a couple of eagle tries, shooting a final-round 66 in the PGA Championship, leading the fourth and final major of 2014 after struggling all year.

In the end, it was one shot too many, Rory McIlroy the winner to cap an incredible month, Mickelson left to stew over a ninth runner-up finish in a major championship.

"Well, it's good for me to get back in the thick of it; to get back in contention, to compete in big tournaments,'' Mickelson said. "And it's fun. It's just fun."

Those were the words, but the look said something else. Mickelson appeared drained, disappointed.

For most of the year he has been searching. Remember the run-up to the U.S. Open, where he was attempting to complete the career Grand Slam? He was never a factor at Pinehurst. He barely made blip in defending his Open Championship title. He lamented the state of his game just over a week ago, then fired a 62 at Firestone to give himself some hope.

Mickelson shot 15-under par at Valhalla and it wasn't enough. He had six birdies during the final round of a major and it wasn't enough. He beat every single player -- but one.

"Regardless of how I played this week, I know that I've got to address some things these next three or four months,'' he said. "And I think that the next four or five years, I really want to make special, and then we'll see.

"I feel like I'm a lot closer to great play than what this year showed, and this is just a little glimpse of what I feel I can do and I'll see if I can work on it some. I'm optimistic that I'll be able to address these issues.''

At 44, Mickelson still has hopes of winning that elusive U.S. Open. He talked about putting emphasis on qualifying for the Olympic Games in 2016, the first time golf will be included in more than 100 years.

And the game sure is better for having him a part of it, being relevant. Mickelson went toe-to-toe with Rickie Fowler for most of the afternoon, a talented player who is 19 years younger. And he gave McIlroy, playing the best golf of his life, everything he wanted, all the way up to the 18th, where Mickelson nearly holed a chip shot for eagle. "How about that pitch shot on 18?'' said Mickelson's caddie Jim "Bones'' Mackay. "He tells me to take out the flag, tend the flag. And you hit that kind of shot? It was a great day.

"I was proud of him. It wasn't just the fact that he made some birdies. Getting the up-and-down on 6, making that up-and-down on 12. He gave it all he had. Played great. You have to give Rory a lot of credit. He was down. To make that eagle on 10 obviously during his day around. And that's what great, great players do. It was fun to be part of the mix.''

Mickelson's wife, Amy, as well as their children were in attendance, hoping for the greenside celebration like the one at Muirfield last summer. Instead they had to settle for consoling Phil behind the clubhouse, a sense of accomplishment despite the loss.

"Phil looked more himself today, but this was a great day for golf,'' Amy Mickelson said. "Just so much excitement out there. It's hard to root against any of those guys. Rory, Rickie, Henrik [Stenson]. Phil was really excited for this day. It was great for him. And it was so good that he could be aggressive.''

Mickelson will ultimately rue his inability to make birdies after the 11th until No. 18. And there was the crushing bogey at the 16th, where his pitch shot from the short-side rough hit the flag stick and didn't drop, stopping 10 feet away. He missed the putt to fall out of the lead he would never grab again.

"I botched it,'' Mickelson said. "I flew it way too far. I was just trying to fly it halfway from the front edge to the pin and let it release, and it just come out fast. I thought it was going to come out a little slower. Came out fast. It had a chance. I needed a lucky break there. If it one-hops ... like it might almost did ... it caught the lip. It would have been a two-shot swing.''

You wonder how often Mickelson laments these close calls in majors. Merion last year. Winged Foot in 2006. Pinehurst in 1999. Those are three that were basically decided by one shot here or there. Could five majors become eight? Or 10? Mickelson seemed intent on fixing the problems in his game, and focusing on the future.

The next time we see him at the Barclays, you can almost predict he'll be smiling and talking about all the good things to take out of this tournament. But on Sunday night, it was clearly difficult to see through the discontent.

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