Phil Mickelson will win the U.S. Open.
There. I said it. Now pick your dentures up off the floor and let me explain.
For starters, he shot a two-under 68 at the St. Jude Classic presented by FedEx on Thursday, his first competitive round since announcing May 20 that his wife Amy has breast cancer.
So what, you say. The U.S. Open bestows golfing immortality; Memphis bestows Elvis Week. And that's true. Even though Mickelson had played TPC Southwind just once since it was renovated in 2004, and even though he made six birdies (plus two bogeys and a double) in his first round in over a month, the St. Jude isn't the U.S. Open.
The year's second major has owned him. The British? Forget it, not his type of golf, anyway. The U.S. Open is almost exactly Phil's bag, emphasis on the "almost." He's finished second four times, never placing worse than T4 in four U.S. Opens held in New York. He's found more ways to lose it than Tiger has to win it.
Nursing a one-shot lead at Winged Foot in 2006, Mickelson needed to hit 3-wood on 18, but didn't have a 3-wood, sprayed his tee shot, hit a worse second shot and made a killing double.
"I am such an idiot," he said, but he should have reserved such harsh judgment.
In 2008, playing the longest ever U.S. Open course at Torrey Pines, Phil brought his 3-wood but in a bolt of counterintuitive lunacy opted against carrying a driver. Playing in front of hometown fans, on a course he'd seen hundreds of times, he never sniffed the lead and even made an absurd 9 on the par-5 13th hole.
It's almost impossible to guess which way Mickelson will go in a major, whereas calling a Tiger victory, especially on the heels of his rock-solid 65 to win the Memorial, is like predicting bad weather on "Ice Road Truckers."
Still, you've got to believe that this is the year for Phil, for many reasons.
• Start with the love. Love's got to be worth at least a half a shot a round, right? Phil will be soaking up a lot of it at Bethpage Black, because even thought he's never lived on the East Coast, the 2002 Bethpage Open is where fans first fell for Phil the Thrill, who never stops smiling and waving even as he turns golf into NASCAR.
New York's Phil-o-meter red lined at 11 when he won the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol. How much higher can it go? It's like a cheetah getting track spikes. Of course there's the possibility that it'll go to Mickelson's head, as it apparently did in San Diego last summer. But with so much to think about off the course, the guess here is that he was right when he said in Memphis, that golf, even U.S. Open golf, will be his sanctuary.
• Tiger is not invincible, and no one knows it better than Phil. Yes, Mickelson finished second to Tiger at the 2002 Bethpage U.S. Open, and it would be foolish to believe Woods will not finish somewhere in the top three next week.
But Mickelson will no doubt remember he beat Woods head-to-head at the Masters in April, when Phil put together a dazzling front-nine 30. He edged Tiger in the final round of the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship, too, and unlike this year's Masters, won the tournament.
Good memories, both.
• Phil is playing to win, not just to take his mind off things. Tiger dropped in on Bethpage for a sneak peek Monday. That's great. Phil flew overnight to see the course Tuesday.
"I don't feel as though my game is that far off," Mickelson told the press Wednesday in Memphis, and on Thursday it didn't look much different from the game that produced five top-10 finishes in his last seven starts on Tour.
That's partly because after taking a few weeks off to digest Amy's diagnosis, Phil began to steal moments here and there to practice.
"Ever since I was a little kid," he said, "the way I would deal with things would be go chip in my backyard before I could drive, or when I could drive, I would go to the course and hit a few balls. Whenever Amy was sleeping or whenever I had a minute, I would either take the kids to the course or I would just go to the range for an hour and hit some balls."
• The USGA keeps going Phil's way. Senior Director of Rules and Competition Mike Davis admitted recently that the rough at Winged Foot and Oakmont was too severe, and so he made graduated, less penal rough at Torrey Pines. The rough at Bethpage will be graduated as well, and superintendent Craig Currier reduced fertilizer and overseeding to thin it out.
"I think the graduated penalty for a miss — it's the first time I've really seen this well done," Mickelson said. "If you just miss a fairway, you're not penalized with a hack-out shot. If you hit it way offline, there's such thick rough, you very well may lose your ball. I think the course is going to allow players to separate themselves who are playing well because they can recover."
• Karma and sentiment count in golf. Maybe it was a coincidence when Ben Crenshaw won the 1995 Masters the same week his mentor Harvey Penick died. Or maybe it wasn't. The golf gods work in funny ways. Breast cancer is no death sentence, but when Mickelson pulls it off at Bethpage, there won't be a dry eye.
• Forget karma; check the math. Mickelson has won nearly one out of every 10 tournaments he's played on the PGA Tour.
His success rate of 9.1% (36 of 394) is nowhere near Tiger's 27.6% or Ben Hogan's 21.8%, but suggests something's got to give with that 0-for-18 mark in the U.S. Open.
The love, the game, the self-belief, the course set-up, the karma, the stats — whatever reason you pick, this is Phil's year. Of course that'll make it Amy's year, too. It's their turn, and that's no bolt of counterintuitive lunacy.