With Tiger Woods out of this year’s U.S. Open golf tournament while recovering from back surgery, a lot of attention will be on Phil Mickelson as the tournament starts Thursday in Pinehurst, N.C.
Mickelson needs a U.S. Open championship to complete the career Grand Slam, and he is a sentimental favorite to get the job done. But for that to happen, Mickelson will have to play better than he has so far this season and ignore an off-the-course issue that has been talked about a lot this week.
It’s not as if Mickelson hasn’t had chances to win the U.S. Open in the past. He has been runner-up six times, including last year when he finished in a tie for second, 2 shots behind Justin Rose.
“I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship and I believe that I’ll have more opportunities,” Mickelson told reporters at the Pinehurst No. 2 course. “When I do, hopefully the experience that I’ve had in the past will allow me to handle it better in the future.”
Many fans will be cheering for Mickelson this week after his performance at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999. He decided to play that week even though he knew his wife, Amy, was expecting their first child.
Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to beat Mickelson by 1 shot, and Amanda Mickelson was born the next day. Stewart died in a plane crash four months later.
“Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens,” Mickelson said. “Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard, and this would be a great place to break through and do it. ”
If Mickelson is to get the job done this week, he’ll have to focus on his game instead of another issue that popped up recently. He was linked recently to an insider trading investigation involving activist investor Carl Icahn and gambler Billy Walters over some timely stock trades three years ago.
FBI agents interviewed Mickelson, who referred them to his attorney and said he had done “absolutely nothing wrong.”
ESPN analyst Andy North said playing a tough course like Pinehurst No. 2 could help Mickelson keep his mind on golf.
“We have so many players, when they have a lot of stuff swirling around them, that use that four or five hours on the golf course as a sanctuary,” said North, a two-time U.S. Open champion.
“You can focus sometimes even better, which sound crazy, but it’s your place where no one can get to you. The phone can’t ring. No one can ask you questions about whatever it is. And you get out there and find your little space. And sometimes that creates a situation where a guy can play exceptionally well.”
Mickelson said playing Pinehurst No. 2 is a great test for players.
“I really believe that this week is testing a player’s entire game,” Mickelson said. “Because it forces you to make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green and utilize your short game to save strokes. It’s just a wonderful test, the best test I’ve seen to identify the best player.”
Mickelson, who turns 44 on Monday, certainly hasn’t been at his best this season. He hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish in 14 PGA Tour tournaments this year, and he hasn’t won since last year’s British Open. He tied for 11th last week at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.
“I feel as good about my game as I have all year,” Mickelson said. He then paused before adding “That’s not staying a lot because I haven’t played well all year.”
The main reason Mickelson has struggled is his putting.
He ranked 11th in putting on the Tour last season, when he finished with two tour victories and seven top-10 finishes. He enters this week ranked 99th in putting this season.
“You can’t win any golf tournaments putting the way I’ve been putting,” Mickelson said.
If Mickelson does have a hot putter this week and deals with the other distractions, he could become the sixth player to win a career Grand Slam. Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods all did it by winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
“It’s a career goal of mine to win all four Majors,” Mickelson said. “I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time. It show that is they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently.
“That’s why it would mean so much, in addition to the fact it’s our national championship.”
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114th U.S. Open
WHEN/WHERE: Thursday through Sunday in Pinehurst, N.C.
COURSE: Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course (7,562 yards, par 70).
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Justin Rose
TV: ESPN (Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.) and NBC (Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m.)