BETHESDA, Md. — The people’s champ wants nothing more than to be the national champ.
Phil Mickelson has a closet full of green jackets, but he’s back at Congressional this week trying to win his first U.S. Open after coming so agonizingly close so many times.
Before he broke through for his first major at the 2004 Masters, Mickelson had three straight top-3 finishes at Augusta. He owns a similar record at the U.S. Open, having finished second five times, plus four other top 10s.
So how does Lefty plan to get over the hump at Congressional? Mickelson said he has to start thinking like he did before he won his first green jacket.
“If you focus so much on the result, if you focus so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way,” Mickelson said on Tuesday. “And so I’m trying not to think about winning as much as I am trying to enjoy the challenge that lies ahead, because I know that the next 72 holes of golf, starting on Thursday, is going to be very difficult.”
That process of embracing the challenge included teeing off for a practice round before 8 a.m. Tuesday with Jeff Overton, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan. Mickelson had his usual mob of fans following him, but at times it felt more like an actual tournament round than a casual practice round.
That’s because it’s now well-known that Mickelson doesn’t play normal practice rounds these days. Usually on the Tuesday before a big event, Mickelson will gather three players together for a money match, which he says helps him get his game sharp for a tournament.
The stakes also help his playing partners.
“The idea is, I want guys playing match play and getting ready for Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups,” Mickelson told the Associated Press earlier this month. “We play best ball and individual games, 18-hole matches. I haven’t said this to the guys, but that was my thinking when I started playing these matches. And if you’ll notice, most of them are young guys who one day are going to be representing the U.S.”
Mickelson also likes to get away from the course the day before a major championship starts, and he’ll have quite a getaway on Wednesday. Mickelson, Bubba Watson and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III have been invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.
“[Obama] asked me and a couple of players to go, and I’m really excited,” Mickelson said. “Amy’s flying in town early to go. He’s such a charismatic man, and to have an opportunity to go to the White House and meet our president is really cool, and I’m excited about it.”
But once the U.S. Open starts on Thursday, Mickelson’s chances for a breakthrough will come down to the putter, a club Mickelson has been struggling with this year. A week before the Masters, he won in Houston and cruised into the first major of the year as a heavy favorite. But Mickelson’s putter cooled at Augusta, and he finished tied for 27th, the first time he’s finished out of the top 10 there since 2007.
Mickelson shot a final-round 67 to tie for 13th two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament, but more importantly he gained confidence with the putter. He took only 24 putts on Sunday, a good sign before trying to navigate the lightning-fast greens at Congressional.
“I feel I’m right on the cusp of getting my confidence back with the putter because I’m rolling the ball better than I have, but I’m not making them,” Mickelson said. “There’s a small difference there getting the right speed for the line, but I’m close. I had a great Sunday putting round at Memorial, where I was able to tie in the right speed for my line.”
The other club Mickelson has been tinkering with is a strong 2-iron off the tee, but after a few practice rounds at Congressional he might not use it as much as planned.
“It’s a little bit more playable for me with a driver, because I don’t have to be perfect,” Mickelson said. “If I miss the fairway with the 2-iron, I’m so far back that I’m not able to get it up on or by the green. If I hit driver and I happen to miss it, I’m 50 yards closer and I have an opportunity to now advance it up or by the green and salvage pars, and I feel that will give me the best chance to make pars on a lot of the holes.”
Mickelson’s quest for his first U.S. Open title will have an awkward start when he tees off at 1:35 p.m. on Thursday with Johnson and Rory McIlroy. No. 10, which is new since the last time the U.S. Open was held at Congressional, is a 218-yard par 3 that plays off an elevated tee and over water. And it’s not one of Mickelson’s favorite holes on the course.
“So as I was saying earlier about how 18 is like a brilliantly designed golf hole, I think 10 is the exact opposite, because the average guy can’t play that hole,” Mickelson said. “He can’t carry that water and get it stopped on that green. So when I play that hole, three is a great score. I’ll take three every day, and if I happen to make a four, so be it.”
While it is unusual, Mickelson said starting his U.S. Open on a par 3 is fine. It’s one more mental test that will keep him focused on the shot at hand, and, more importantly, not thinking about winning the U.S. Open.
“I’m trying to enjoy the challenge this week, and deep down I have the belief that I can come out on top,” Mickelson said. “But I’m trying not to worry about the result.”