BETHESDA, Md. To get to the scorer's tent from the 18th green at Congressional Golf Club, players must cross a wobbly bridge, then file through a long narrow pen, which looks like something you might use to herd cattle onto a truck. As Phil Mickelson traversed this walkway after his second round in the U.S. Open Friday, he waved and nodded and smiled at the huge crowds that were applauding and yelling his name.
Ten paces behind Mickelson was Rory McIlroy, scowling and shaking his head, having just double-bogeyed the watery par-4 closer. For a fleeting moment in this 111th Open, you'd have believed Mickelson was the leader, at long last on his way to winning his first Open title. But the scene was a farce, a contradiction of the harsh reality that faces the 41-year-old with two rounds to play.
After another sensational round from McIlroy on Friday (66), Mickelson is a dozen shots back at the halfway point. Lefty shot a two-under-par 69 in the second round, a five-shot improvement from his untidy performance Thursday. But once again he never appeared in total control of his game and especially his driver, which he sprayed all over Congo like a high-powered sprinkler.
Mickelson has hit just 13 fairways in two days, and on the par-4 15th Friday he blocked a drive so far left that it had some observers referencing his tee shot at the 72nd hole at Winged Foot a few years back. On the downhill dogleg-left 18th, Lefty pushed another drive into the trees that dropped down into some trampled rough. From there, he nearly hit a brilliant approach into the peninsula green, but his ball came up just short and left before disappearing into the pond. A poor chip and two putts later he had made a double-bogey 6.
"I'm still struggling," Mickelson said in a brief chat with reporters after his five-birdie round. "Even though I was able to shoot under par today, I was still struggling with it. Rather than go work on it, I think I'm going to try to figure out what it is I need to work on first and then get back to the range."
Whatever "it" is, Mickelson sounded like he had it figured out earlier in the week. "I believe that I'm playing some good golf," he said Tuesday. "Ball-striking-wise I think it's the best it's ever been in the last three or four or five months."
Mickelson had toyed with the idea of employing his 2-iron more than his driver this week, but he thought better of it, he said, because he'd rather be closer to the green in a bad lie than farther back and in the fairway. "I found [the course] is a little bit more playable for me with a driver, because I don't have to be perfect," he said.
Mickelson is never perfect, but he still finds a way to a score. After hitting just 58 percent of his greens in regulation through two rounds, he is at one-over-par, which barring McIlroy's theatrics would have Lefty right in the thick of things.
"[Mickelson] was under par for the tournament going into the final hole," McIlroy said. "From an outsider looking in, I don't know if I could have been under par for the tournament hitting it in some of the places that he did.
"But he's just got a phenomenal short game and a great attitude. He just forgets about some of the bad shots and just goes and almost relishes the challenge of getting it up and down."
McIlroy said he caught himself trying to glean a little knowledge from Mickelson's chipping technique during Friday's round.
"He's sort of looking around everywhere, looking at different parts of the green, how he can bring it in," McIlroy said. "You can see all those little thoughts going through his head. It's really cool."
Facing a 12-shot deficit, Mickelson now has bigger thoughts to consider. Can he recalibrate his swing in time for a weekend charge? Should he leave the driver in the bag? Will he ever snap his drought at the Open, which is threatening to extend to no wins in 21 attempts.
"I really believe I can win this tournament," Mickelson said Tuesday.
Question is, does he still believe that?