At peace off the course, Phil Mickelson now focused on 36-hole grind for the U.S. Open

At peace off the course, Phil Mickelson now focused on 36-hole grind for the U.S. Open

Phil Mickelson has finished runner-up five times at the U.S. Open.
Fred Vuich / Sports Illustrated

ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson can complete the career grand slam this week.

OK, not technically. Every person marching into a Main Line bar this week with Merion mud on his or her rubber boots knows that Phil is missing both the British and U.S. Opens on his Hall of Fame golfing resume.

But a win this week is a kind of twofer, because you're not going to find a more British course (English, really) in the United States than Merion. On the other hand, when the greens are Stimping at 14, you know you're playing Stateside. That combination helps explain why there are only two golfers under par through 36 holes. It's two championships in one, with the hardest parts of both national championships on glorious display.

In June 1971, Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus in a playoff for the U.S. Open at Merion. (Nicklaus was already a British Open champion, and Trevino became one the following month.) The harder the course, the more class rises. As hard as Merion is playing, it's easy to imagine Tiger Woods and Mickelson at the top of the board late on Sunday, when Mickelson turns 43.

With 36 holes in the books, the tournament is really just getting started. Technically, Mickelson is tied for the lead, with Billy Horschel, at one under par. But for Woods to trail by four, that's close to nothing. If level par, or over par, wins this event — if this U.S. Open becomes even more of a grindfest than it already is — that plays perfectly into Woods's hands. Why? Because nobody has more grind-it-out in him than Woods.

Grinding is not Mickelson's greatest strength. A couple years ago, and in a quiet way, Mickelson brought a psychologist, Julie Elion, into his inner circle in an effort to improve his focus and concentration. Many people would say that going home — to San Diego! — for his daughter's middle-school graduation the day before the first round of the U.S. Open would be a major distraction. I would argue that it was an enhancement for Mickelson. The move allows Mickelson, a middle-aged husband and father of three, to say to himself, "You've taken care of things on the home front. Now it's golf time."

It's counterintuitive, of course. It's also pure Phil. Phil must do things his own way, and his many, many fans love him for it. Did Jack Nicklaus say you cannot win at Merion without a driver? Yes. Is Phil carrying a driver? No. Big Jack's not always right. Often, yes — but not always.

Woods, you might argue, has more pressure on him than any other player in the field. (Is that really true? No one could possibly know, not even Woods.) But more than any other golfer, Woods seems to define his life by what he does in major championships. If Mickelson wins this U.S. Open, it's great. It's huge. But does it change his life? Not really. That's a good place to be.

Ever since Y.E. Yang nipped Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship, Woods has not looked like the same golfer in the majors. His putting hasn't been the same. He hasn't owned the competition and the courses like he once did. But he thinks his way so well around difficult courses like Merion, he's put himself in excellent position.

Mickelson noted after his second round that nobody is going to distance himself from the field. Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. If somebody wins this U.S. Open by two shots, that's a huge margin, and a playoff, as there was in the 1950 and 1971 U.S. Opens, is a distinct possibility. (Tiger and Phil on Monday? It could happen.) For Mickelson to win, he will have to putt better than he did on Friday, when he played a beautiful, controlled round of golf, but missed short birdie putts on two, eight and nine. He had a three-putt bogey on No. 1.

He held his fat-gripped putter with a conventional grip. On No. 11, while his playing partner Keegan Bradley was dealing with a drop from a hazard, Mickelson stood on the side of the green and made phantom strokes with both a conventional grip and a claw grip. He has a pronounced forward press, a residue of his sessions with the putting coach Dave Stockton about three years ago.

The round took nearly five hours to play, and Mickelson, Bradley and Steve Stricker chased sunset all the way around. With Stricker keeping company on the leaderboard with Mickelson all day, and playing so late in the day, the Friday round felt more like a Saturday one. Bradley is one of Mickelson's protégés, and Bradley gave Mickelson a spirited low-five when he made his first birdie of the day, from 25 feet, on the last hole, with the sun setting behind him. It was a good pairing for Mickelson. The crowds showered him with "Go Phils" at every tee, as they do wherever Mickelson goes, but most especially in the Northeast. You can just tell the man has cheesesteaks on his mind. In Philadelphia, that plays.

Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, has been having little chit-chats with Mickelson here and there over the past 10 or 11 days, and Mickelson has told him more than once how much he loves the Merion setup. It has been said often this week that there is no graduated rough at Merion, but that's really not true. The length of the rough varies widely. Some of it is merely wet, long and difficult. In other places, it is unplayable. The course is holding up to the best players in the world because the rough is absurdly difficult. The old-fashioned cant of the greens is also befuddling. They often tilt in ways that modern greens do not.

But the greens have been soft and receptive and, for the most part, smooth. The rough is a nightmare. It is in the heads of the players, almost like a water hazard or out of-bounds would be. Mickelson has taken a page from that golfing genius Lee Trevino and made playing out of the fairway his highest priority. Over two rounds, he has hit 75 percent of the fairways.

Mike Davis loves the concept of the drivable par-4, but after just one practice round Mickelson was able to figure out that there really are no drivable par-4s at Merion, at least not for him. That's one of the reasons he's not carrying a driver. He's hitting his 3-wood in the manner of a driver. It's teed up at least half an inch, and he plays it forward, and he smashes it. But a smashed 3-wood cannot be compared to a smashed driver. It doesn't bore through the air like a driver does. It doesn't get the big bounce the way a driver does.

So far, Mickelson is not missing it. His 3-wood is Hogan's driver, and Trevino's, too. Phil Mickelson is wearing his game plan on his face and there's nothing mysterious about it: fairways and greens, fairways and greens. When you hit a bad one, pitch it out, pitch it on, try to make the putt. That's what he did on the fifth on Friday. The birdie at the buzzer — that 25-footer he made on 18 on Friday — looked great on the ESPN highlight reel. But that unglamorous four he made on the 500-yard, par-4 fifth is a textbook example of how you win an Open.