Phil Mickelson focused on finding his form for US Open
'Lefty' focused on finding form and going through US Open pain barrier to seal career Grand Slam
ALL his life, Phil Mickelson has been waiting for a chance like this at the US Open.
Mickelson the entertainer, the artist, the adrenaline junkie, has been sorely frustrated in his lifelong quest to win the US Open because the odds usually are stacked as heavily against the high-rolling gambler in this event as they are in any casino.
Yet Mickelson will never, can't ever, give in to the percentage game which pays dividends in his sport's most demanding arena. Those who live on the edge at the US Open usually founder in ankle-deep rough alongside fairways and close to its greens.
Their artistic edge was diminished in the long grass.
This helps explain why modern golf's most consistently exciting performer has finished runner-up a heart-wrenching six times in his national open, a championship record litany of near-misses which stretches back 15 years to the 1999 US Open here on the No 2 Course at Pinehurst.
Each of those six near-misses came about in different ways, with unpredictable putting playing a significant part at Merion last year, Bethpage in 2009 and Shinnecock in 2004. Yet the one factor common to them all, it seemed, making it pathologically impossible for Mickelson to win the US Open was his inability to resist the swashbuckling shot at key times and play what he would consider the boring or mundane one.
Except this week at Pinehurst No 2, the house, otherwise known as the United States Golf Association, has given Mickelson a break. "This place is awesome," he said yesterday, eyes almost popping out of his head with excitement. Mickelson began his next sentence by saying, "this is the first ... ," then, one must assume, checked himself in deference to his hosts before going on: "I believe this week is testing a player's entire game because it forces you to make good decisions throughout.
"To choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green and utilise your short game to save strokes. There's no luck involved with the hack-it-out rough that sometimes we have around the greens. I think it's the best test I've seen to identify the best player."
This is due to a major redesign of the golf course by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore since the 2005 US Open to better reflect the vision of its legendary Scottish designer Donald Ross a century ago.
They've been so successful, it resembles more a British Open venue than its US equivalent, naturally with a few key exceptions. How grossly ironic is it that Mickelson's game so far this year has not looked good enough to allow him to take best advantage of this glorious opportunity to win his Golden Fleece, the career Grand Slam, an honour achieved only by Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
That widely publicised recent interview with the FBI agents at Memorial, part of a ham-fisted investigation into insider-trading, was so far from his thinking, Mickelson effortlessly brushed aside gentle efforts to introduce it during yesterday's media conference.
His game is the only potential stumbling block this week, but Lefty hopes a switch back to the claw grip, allowing him to putt more smoothly and eliminate the 'pop' in his stroke which made distance control so difficult last week in Memphis, will make all the difference.
"I do feel heading into this week that the golf course, the set-up and everything about Pinehurst provides me with the best opportunity, but I haven't had the form this year to get excited.
"I felt it coming around last week and again today, but I don't want to get carried away because the pressure of a US Open and not being in contention (since last July's Open at Muirfield) is going to be a challenge.
"So too are the expectations, having looked forward to this event for almost a year now; the history I've had here and how much it would mean to me to win makes it more difficult as well," he added. "I tend to do better when nobody really expects it." Mickelson's chance has come!