Mickelson downplays quest for first Open, No. 1 ranking

He may not like to discuss it, but Phil Mickelson could overtake Tiger Woods this week for the top spot in the Official World Rankings.
Fred Vuich/SI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Yes, Phil Mickelson wants to win a U.S. Open, but he's not going to get all Captain Ahab about it.

"You could say that about any player and some tournament," Mickelson said Tuesday at Pebble Beach, where this week he attempts again to claim a championship in which he has finished second a record five times. "Nicklaus never won in Canada. I mean, come on! We could talk about Arnold [Palmer] not winning a PGA, I'd rather talk about the four Masters he won or the win he had a Cherry Hills or what he did at Birkdale."

Nice try, Phil.

With all the heartbreak he's endured at the U.S. Open — Payne Stewart's putt on 18 at Pinehurst in 1999, the 72nd hole meltdown at Winged Foot in 2006, to cite just two of his runner-up finishes — this tournament is as much a part of his story as his three Masters titles. Asked Tuesday if his quest to win a U.S. Open is similar to his long search for a first major prior to the 2004 Masters, Mickelson responded, "Possibly. Having come second five of the last 11 years and coming so close, this is a tournament I'd very much like to win."

Winning a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach would hold special significance for Mickelson, who made his professional debut here at the 1992 Open. "I had a great first round, shot 68, then shot 82 to miss the cut," Mickelson recalled. "It was a difficult test. It was very difficult in '92 as it was in 2000, although one player in 2000 made it look easy. I think it's going to be very hard this week as well."

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Mickelson said he is proud of the success he's had at the U.S. Open, partly because when he arrived on Tour in 1992 many observers thought his aggressive style was not a good fit for the game's most demanding major.

"In the Open, the biggest thing is where you can make par from, what's your best opportunity to make par, and there are a lot of times where these greens are unhittable," he said. "I think that's why I've been able to be successful in the Open is that nobody is able to hit some greens and it puts a lot of emphasis on the short game."

Mickelson denied that the typical Open setup forces him to be a more conservative player, but admits he changes his approach due to the more demanding tee shots. "I don't want to play aggressive off the tee [at a U.S. Open]," Mickelson said. "I want to play aggressive at the pin."

Speaking earlier on Tuesday, Tiger Woods said that Mickelson's second-place finishes show that he knows how to play a U.S. Open venue. "This is the toughest event to win and he's been there so many times, it's just a matter of time before he wins," Woods said. "He understands how to put himself there and what it takes over the long haul to be in that position, and that's not easy to do."

The Woods-Mickelson rivalry is another subplot to the 2010 U.S. Open. If Mickelson wins this week — or if several other permutations occur involving high finishes for Phil and Tiger not winning — he overtakes Woods as the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings. Mickelson claimed he hasn't spent much time thinking about it.

"Everybody who plays golf is motivated to try to become No. 1, [but] it's not an area that I focus on," Mickelson said. "I feel if I play good golf that will happen. I don't know how the ranking system works, nor do I care. I just know that if I continue to play well, ultimately in the long run it will happen."

What Mickelson is concerned about in the short term is the greens at Pebble Beach. He said the course is "the best U.S. Open setup I've seen," but that without rain the small and firm greens could become unplayable. That could lead to a repeat of the farce at the seventh green at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, where players could not stop the ball on the green (Mickelson finished second there, too).

"I'm certainly concerned we could have 14 potential seventh holes at Shinnecock if we're not careful," Mickelson said.

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