Phil Mickelson smiles through his struggles as he prepares for another attempt at U.S. Open redemption
PINEHURST, N.C. — If Phil Mickelson were a weatherman, each day would be a sunny 78 degrees with a slight breeze.
Mickelson hasn’t notched a top-10 since last August. Doesn’t matter. The 43-year-old claims to be playing his best golf this year entering the U.S. Open. He hasn’t made a putt since Muirfield (Scotland, 2013, not Ohio, two weeks ago), so he changes his putting grip two days before the biggest tournament of his career and is positively giddy about it. Asked about "off-the-field distractions or issues," such as the news that he is being investigated for insider trading by the FBI and SEC, he responded simply that "you've got to keep your focus on just the shot at hand."
Everything is sunny in the World of Phil, and in some sense, why shouldn’t it be?
If you take the long view of his career so far, only a few bad swings -- okay, really bad swings -- separate the popular Mickelson from being the undisputed king of the U.S. Open. Six times he has finished runner-up at the season’s second major, proving time and time again he has what it takes -- or mostly, probably has what it takes -- to win our national championship.
Granted, he may never win the U.S. Open and join Jack, Tiger, Gene, Ben and Gary as winners of the career Grand Slam. But what if he does? What if Mickelson throws his KPMG hat in the ring as one of the best ever?
“If I'm able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently,” he said.
We all would. But. There is always a "but" with Mickelson. He’s a fantastic player, but he’s never won a major. Sure, he’s won a few majors, but he chokes at the U.S. Open. This week’s "but" is obvious: He’s not really playing that well, a fact he readily admits.
He has cracked the top-25 only five times in 12 starts this year. He has more WDs (two) than top-10 finishes (none, although he has two T11 finishes). He missed the cut at the Masters and the Players Championship, and he’s languishing at 103rd in Strokes Gained Putting on the season.
It won’t get any easier at Pinehurst No. 2. The newly remodeled course will reject approach shots, even the good ones, and send them caroming off the green into collection areas. Of course, the ever-buoyant Mickelson says if no one can hit the greens all week, then he likes his chances.
The course has a brutal combination of devilish greens and insane length. Bubba Watson is going to negate his main advantage over the field by not hitting as many drivers. Mickelson will head the opposite direction. He’ll be pulling driver at every turn and attacking Pinehurst.
“You're taking on a little bit more risk with the driver, and I actually, when I first played it I thought I was going to hit a lot of hybrids and 3-woods,” Mickelson said. “But the greens are so repellant that you need to get as close to them as possible. So I'll be hitting a lot of drivers.”
Would we expect anything less from Mickelson?
“I don't want to get overly excited,” he added, “because the pressure of a U.S. Open and having not been in contention lately, that's going to be a challenge for me. The expectations of me looking forward to this event for almost a year now, the history that I've had here, how much of a great story it would be and how much it would mean to me to win here makes it more difficult, as well. I tend to play better when nobody really expects it. I just kind of come out of nowhere and know that I can do it and not really have to answer questions about it.”
In that regard, he’s right where he doesn’t want to be. There’s no escaping the questions this week for Mickelson. He’s the fan favorite, the media darling and the game’s biggest name in another Tiger-less major. That didn’t stop him from being all smiles Tuesday.
The World of Phil is a good place to live.