Phil Mickelson, like most of the rest of the golf world, is acutely aware of the fact that a victory in this week’s U.S. Open would give him golf’s coveted “career grand slam,” with wins in all four major championships.
Save for late-round heroics by Payne Stewart on Pinehurst No. 2 back in 1999 – Stewart sank a short birdie putt on the 71st hole, then made the memorable 15-foot par-saving putt on the last hole to claim victory by a shot over Mickelson — Mickelson would already be there.
It wasn’t meant to be 15 years ago. That final hole, and the unforgettable moment after the last putt when Stewart — who was to die tragically in an airplane crash four months later — grasped Mickelson’s face to tell to him about the priority of fatherhood and his belief that Mickelson would go on to win an open, ultimately became a turning point.
Mickelson had managed just two top-three finishes in the 27 major championships before coming to Pinehurst in 1999, but would finish in the top three in nearly half of the next 22 he’d play. And he followed his runner-up finish in Pinehurst with five additional second-place showings (in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and again last year) in becoming one of the game’s most accomplished, and most celebrated, stars.
So in the season after his British Open triumph at Muirfield (which added to his three Masters and one PGA Championship titles) Mickelson’s return to Pinehurst, with its premium
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on short-game skills, has tantalizing possibilities. Mickelson himself has called the Open, our nation’s national championship, “the final link” in the 43-year-old’s amazing career.
He hopes to celebrate his 44th birthday, which comes on Monday, with a championship.
“…(I)t’s a career goal of mine to win all four majors,” Mickelson said after his practice round Tuesday. “I feel like the five players who have done that (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time. It shows that they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently.”
Mickelson added: “…plus, with all those close calls.”
His struggles in closing out the deal at the U.S. Open are well-documented, as is the significance of this return to Pinehurst, where a statue of Stewart in his iconic post-putt celebration overlooks the 18th green.
“It would really mean a lot to me,” Mickelson said of winning the Open. “Then to do it right here where Payne and I had this moment where he we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens. Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard and this would be a great place to break through and do it.”
Sentimental favorite? Sure. But the game’s fickleness and Mickelson’s poor play so far this season don’t exactly make him the odds-on favorite.
The “flip side,” though, as Mickelson acknowledged Tuesday, is “that I tend to do well when it’s least expected, so you know, I’m not going to -- I’m going to be up front with the fact that that’s a goal of mine. I’m up front with the fact that I would love to do it here at Pinehurst.”
And while he said he’s not going to put pressure on himself to say this week is his last opportunity, the way his skills match the unique demands of Pinehurst No. 2 can’t be ignored.
“It’s probably the best opportunity (to win), because the golf course is so short-game oriented, because greens are so repellant, and the shots around the greens play a premium amongst all The Open venues that we have had,” he said.
Simply put, he loves the course.
“This place is awesome,” he said. “It is just a wonderful site… I really believe that this week is testing a player’s entire game. Because it forces you to make decisions, make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green, and utilize your short game to save strokes. There’s no luck involved with the hack-it- out rough that sometimes we have around the greens. It’s just a wonderful test that is, I think, the best test I’ve seen to identify the best player.”
On top of that, Mickelson comes to Pinehurst feeling the best he has all year about his golf game. A strong showing last week — he finished four shots behind winner Ben Crane at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, despite a final-round 72 and some putting woes – has boosted his confidence.
“…(L)ast week was a good week for me,” he said, stating he should have won by eight shots last week had be putted well. “I started to slowly put it together. I struggled on the greens they were a different grass and I had trouble reading them but I felt I hit them somewhat solid.”
After a coaching session Tuesday morning with teacher and former PGA touring pro Dave Stockton Jr., Mickelson announced he planned to switch this week to using the “claw grip” on the putter in order to give himself lighter grip pressure on the fast greens and create a softer roll of the ball.
“I was running them way by last week and by taking my bottom hand off the putter, it eliminates some that hit,” he said.
But rather than the putter, Mickelson said a more important club this week could be one fans usually don’t see a lot of during a U.S. Open — the driver.
“I feel good with the driver,” he said. “I feel like that’s going to be the club that could kind of make or break my week this week. My driving’s taken a whole different turn and if I can put it together like I did those last two rounds (last week), this week could be a good one because it will make a big difference having a shorter iron in.”
And because Mickelson’s star was made with his short game, he can’t be ignored as a threat. In fact, he was asked Tuesday if this was as excited as he’s ever been heading into a major championship, knowing what’s at stake for him and the way the course’s setup favors his game.
“Yes…everything about Pinehurst provides me the best opportunity,” he said. “I don’t want to get overly excited, because the pressure of a U.S. Open and having not been in contention, that’s going to be a challenge for me. Also, the expectations of me looking forward to this event for almost a year now and the history that I’ve had here and how much of a great story it would be and how much it would mean to me to win here with what happened with Payne Stewart and my child and all these things, that makes it more difficult as well…
“I tend to do something, play better, like at Muirfield last year when nobody really expects it and I just kind of come out of nowhere and know that I can do it and not really have to answer questions about it. So these are all challenges that I’m facing this week, but I’m also enjoying it and I love being here.”
And part of that is remembering 1999, about how close he’s come since, and what it would be like to hold the championship trophy on the 18th green come Sunday. Mickelson said he’s fighting that natural temptation. Everyone, it seems, wants to look ahead to Sunday. Mickelson knows that doesn’t work.
“I try not to, because I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he said. “But it’s only natural that it’s going to. Occasionally I’ll catch myself, but I really try not to, because I really just want to focus on what I need to do to get ready for Thursday. If I can do that, hopefully I’ll give myself a chance on the weekend.”