SAN DIEGO — Let’s face it, if Phil Mickelson is going to win a U.S. Open in his lifetime, this is the one. It’s all but gift-wrapped and offered up on a silver platter for him.
It’ll be played at Torrey Pines, a course where he has played hundreds of rounds and won the Buick Invitational three times. The San Diego native has the crowd on his side. He’s the No. 2-ranked player in the world, and No. 1 hasn’t played in two months.
If that isn’t some form of harmonic convergence, what is? This looks like it should be Phil’s Open. Yeah, and Big Brown was a lock to win the Triple Crown, too. Golf is as fickle a game as any.
Phil broke his 0-for-42 streak in majors when he finally won the first of his two Masters titles, but the Open is the big one that got away from him. He’s been second four times. He lost on the last hole at Pinehurst to Payne Stewart in ’99, came close to Tiger at Bethpage Black in ’02, was edged by Retief Goosen at Shinnecock Hills in ’04 and, of course, had his 72nd-hole meltdown at Winged Foot in ’06 when Geoff Ogilvy snatched the Open championship.
Asked about his feelings toward the Open, Mickelson offered up the line of the week so far. “I love it,” he said, “I just haven’t gotten the love back.”
And yes, he knows just how well this week sets up for him. “I believe I can win, and this golf course gives me the best opportunity to do that,” he said. “It would help define my career.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in a U.S. Open on the course I grew up on in the prime of my career. I just want to give myself the best chance I can.”
Nobody will hand him the Open trophy just yet, however. Maybe it’s ironic or simply odd, but this Open sets up well for Woods, too. And while these two guys aren’t buddies in any sense of the word, Phil has made a point to show his respect for Tiger. At the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, Phil was asked what he thought about Jack Nicklaus. “Best of all time,” Mickelson said before adding, “Maybe not for long, but best of all time.”
Woods has dominated the PGA Tour for most of his career. Despite playing on what we later learned was a bad knee, Woods won three times this year and finished second at the Masters. Two days after Trevor Immelman’s victory in Augusta, Woods underwent arthroscopic surgery. He hasn’t played in a tournament since. That doesn’t sound like harmonic convergence? Well, he’s won the Buick Invitational six times at Torrey Pines. You could say he owns this course.
The last time he had surgery on his knee and took time off, he came back at the Buick Invitational and won. So this week’s situation is hardly uncharted territory. But returning at the U.S. Open is a much tougher proposition. After his father passed away in 2006, Woods made his return at the Open at Winged Foot and missed the cut.
Woods was short when asked about his knee Tuesday. He’s clearly tired of the questions, and he’s not giving out any inside information.
“I feel good about my practices, my preparation, coming back to a course I’ve had some success at and looking forward to getting out there and playing,” he said. “When I played Winged Foot after a long layoff, I didn’t get into the flow of the round for three or four holes. You can’t do that. Hopefully, I can find the rhythm in the round a little quicker.”
Asked if he’d walked 18 holes since Sunday at Augusta, Woods answer was, “No.” That’s all, just no. Asked if his knee was fully recovered or if he was holding back when he played, he said, “It is fully recovered? Probably not.” Again, that’s it.
He said his knee began to feel a lot better and his endurance returned while he was home during the week of the Memorial. As for the current status of his knee, he said, “It’s a little sore but not anything that I haven’t dealt with before.”
Woods played Torrey Pines last Wednesday but took a cart. On Monday he played the front nine, and he played the back on Tuesday. “I’ve always liked playing here,” Woods said. “For some reason, I feel very comfortable here.”
So it’s Phil, the No. 2 player in the world on his home course, vs. No. 1 Tiger, the best player in the game on a course where he’s won more than anywhere else.
And they’re paired together for the first two rounds with No. 3-ranked Adam Scott. It’s going to be pretty difficult to look away the first two days and notice anyone else in the field. This is glamour golf at its best.
Mickelson likes the pairing because it means he and Tiger will play in the same conditions at the same time of day. When they play in the same event, they’re usually split — that is, Mickelson will get a morning tee time and Woods will get an afternoon time. That guarantees one of them will be on the course during the television broadcast. “Usually, one end of the tee times has an advantage,” Mickelson said. “For us to be on the same end of the draw makes it a fair championship.”
If they’re paired together in the final group on the weekend, still a long shot on a Tuesday, this Open could be one for the ages.