SAN FRANCISCO — What about Phil?
That's the question you should be asking this week. You wouldn't think golf's second-biggest star would be able to come into the U.S. Open under the radar in a year when he won impressively at Pebble Beach and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. But a number of players are riding in here on a wheelbarrow full of buzz, and Phil isn't one of them.
It probably has to do with his lack of recent results. Our attention spans are shorter than an amoeba's, so all we remember is that Phil flared out at the Memorial. He shot 79 in the first round and withdrew due to "mental fatigue." Or, as others define it, bad scheduling.
The revival of Tiger Woods has blotted out the sun again, and he's the favorite and the talk of the game. Others getting attention are defending champion Rory McIlroy, Wells Fargo champion Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood, No. 1 Luke Donald and Dustin Johnson, who jumped into the conversation by winning last week in Memphis. There's also that new folk hero, Bubba Watson.
Phil, of course, will be paired with Bubba and Tiger in the early rounds. "It's fabulous and I'll tell you why," Mickelson said of the marquee grouping. "I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it. We all do. He gets the best out of me. One of the issues I've had this year is that I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won't be this week. When we first started getting paired together, I didn't play my best. The last five years or so, I've been able to enjoy the challenge of playing with him. I've played some of my better golf with him."
So the spotlight isn't directly on Phil this week, and that's a plus for him. Maybe he won't have to spend a lot of time talking about those Opens that got away. Maybe he won't have to discuss all those majors that got away. He did briefly touch on his U.S. Open close calls on Tuesday. "This is a tournament if you look at my game from 20,000 feet, you'd say, Well, that's probably not the best setup for the way he likes to play," Mickelson said. "And yet, five times I've had opportunities, I've come close. Could have, should have won a few of those. And that gives me the belief that I can be in contention Sunday in this tournament."
The only Open disappointment that lingered for him, he said, was Winged Foot in 2006. "I felt like I really should have won that one," he admitted. "It's not the drive off 18 as much as the 3-iron around the tree. Because if I had not hit the tree, I would have been up by the green with an opportunity to salvage par with my short game, which was the best it's ever been in my career that week."
Phil didn't go into details on his other near-wins, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about them and play our own game of What If? Mickelson has four majors — three Masters and a PGA Championship — and a host of close calls. Besides those five runner-up finishes in the Open, he's authored five third-place finishes at Augusta. Overall, he's finished in the top six 19 times in majors. If things had gone his way, we could be talking about Phil's quest to surpass 18 majors.
How many majors could he have won, or should he have won? Let's count them up.
1. It's the one we all remember, the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Phil had the lead going to the 72nd hole even though he couldn't find a fairway with MapQuest. A par would have won, but he flared his drive into the trees right. A bad decision off the tee? No. A day earlier, he'd played driver-wedge. His mistake was attempting a heroic recovery shot through the tree. Disaster ensued. After a double-bogey 6, he said, "I am such an idiot," and the Open was handed to Geoff Ogilvy. Verdict: Should've won.
2. Phil's scintillating final-round front nine got him into contention at last year's British Open at Royal St. Georges. He one-putted the first 10 greens but blew a two-footer at the 11th. After that, his confidence apparently shaken, he couldn't make anything happen. Bingo, Clarke was able to coast home, and Phil was a runner-up. Verdict: Could've won.
3. Phil pulled into a share of the lead with Lucas Glover in the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black when he eagled the par-5 13th hole. He rode a wave of momentum and fan support to the closing holes, where he gassed putts from three feet at the 15th and six feet at the 17th. Verdict: Should've won.
4. The 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills seemed set up for Mickelson. The New York crowds who had adopted him two years earlier at Bethpage were out in force, and he was just about the only player making a run on Sunday, when Shinnecock's greens were absurdly firm. He put together an Arnold Palmer-like charge. He trailed Retief Goosen by three strokes with six holes to play, then birdied three of the next four to take a one-shot lead. Goosen, meanwhile, made a series of amazing par saves. It all came down to the par-3 17th hole, where Mickelson hit into a bunker, blasted long and then three-putted for double bogey. Again, it was the putter. Nothing against the Goose, but the crowd's electricity vanished with Phil's gaffe. Verdict: Should've won.
5. Mickelson led the 2004 British Open at Royal Troon after Todd Hamilton bogeyed the 10th hole in the final round, but then Mickelson bogeyed the 13th and was passed by Hamilton and Ernie Els. He made a birdie at the 16th but came up one shot short of a playoff. When he needed a birdie at the 17th, he missed the green. Verdict: Could've won.
6. Everyone remembers Payne Stewart's winning par putt at the final hole of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, but the deciding strokes happened at the par-3 17th. Mickelson hit it close, to eight feet, and Stewart hit it even closer. Mickelson missed, and Stewart made his and took the lead to the final hole. If Stewart hadn't made a lengthy par putt, Phil would at least have been in a playoff — although with Amy Mickelson about to give birth any minute, who knows if he would've stayed for 18 on Monday? Verdict: Could've won.
7. David Toms won the 2001 PGA Championship when he famously laid up on the finishing hole, a long par 4 over water. Toms made the clutch par putt for the win. The key moment for Phil came a few holes earlier. He chipped in from 35 feet to tie Toms for the lead at the 15th, a scintillating moment, but then he three-putted the 16th hole from 50 feet — the putter again! "Poor three-putt," Mickelson said curtly later. If Toms had to par the 18th to force a playoff, would that have changed his decision to lay up? Verdict: Could've won.
8. Even though Mickelson played well and birdied the 17th hole in the final round, he just couldn't catch Tiger Woods in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. After all the stories about Mickelson being oh-for-his career in majors, vocal New York fans got behind him en masse and tried to root him home. Woods simply outplayed Phil, who finished second. Verdict: Could've won, maybe.
9. After a third-round 66 by Phil, anything looked possible at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Even making up seven shots on third-round leader Dustin Johnson. But Mickelson struggled to a dismal 73 on Sunday, three-putting for par after driving the fourth green and making par at the par-5 sixth even though he was hitting 5-iron into the green for his second shot. "I'm glad it wasn't a second," Mickelson joked glumly after his fourth-place finish, three behind winner Graeme McDowell. Verdict: Could've won, maybe.
10. Good players don't make triple bogeys. They just don't. But Phil did, twice, costing him the 2012 Masters. He had plenty of time to make up for the 7 he posted at the 10th hole on Thursday, but on Sunday, in his chase for a fourth green jacket, he pulled his tee shot left at the par-3 fourth hole. The ball caromed off a grandstand railing into some trees. It got ugly from there as he played two shots right-handed, eventually dumped it into the bunker and took a 6. He tied for third, two shots out of a playoff between Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen. Other than those two miscues, Mickelson played the best golf of anyone. Verdict: Should've won.
11. The pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson began the final round of the 2009 Masters seven shots off the pace. But Mickelson fired a sizzling 30 on the front and charged near the lead, then hit a poor 9-iron shot at the par-3 12th and dumped it into Rae's Creek. After that, the putter cost him again. He missed a four-footer for eagle at the 15th and a five-footer for birdie at the 17th. He bogeyed the 18th and finished three shots out of the playoff that was eventually won by Angel Cabrera. Verdict: Could've won.
12. Phil came to the 72nd hole at the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits needing a birdie to get into a playoff that was later won by Vijay Singh. Mickelson bogeyed the hole to fall into a tie for sixth. He'd finished first in the Masters, second in the U.S. Open and third in the British Open that year and later lamented that he was just five swings away from a Grand Slam. Verdict: Could've won.
That's the list of the truly close calls. In my book, that's four Should've Wons, and eight Could've Wons. In a perfect world, he could have 16 majors. He's got four.
But that's all history now. Mickelson, 41, is looking ahead this week. He's not chasing Jack's record, like Tiger is, but he is still chasing something big — his own U.S. Open.
PHIL MICKELSON'S TOP-SIX FINISHES IN MAJORS