PINEHURST, N.C. — Right now, Phil Mickelson is in the esteemed company of 10 golfers including Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Byron Nelson, Raymond Floyd, Sam Snead, Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour and Lee Trevino.
They are among the greatest in the game’s history. Yet that’s not the group Mickelson wants to be associated with. They have all won three of the four professional major championships.
By Sunday afternoon, he’d like to become a member of an even more exclusive club that includes only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen – the five golfers who have achieved golf’s professional career Grand Slam.
The one championship that has eluded him, painfully in many cases, has been the U.S. Open, and Mickelson tees it up Thursday in his 24th national championship at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course with his first opportunity to achieve the slam since capturing his first British Open title last July.
“I feel like the five players that have done that have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time,” Mickelson said. “What it shows is that 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.”
The U.S. Open has been a source of historically bitter disappointment for Mickelson. He has finished second a record six times, with no one else a runner-up more than four. Of the four players who were four-time runners-up, only Snead didn’t win at least one title.
Mickelson has been a runner-up in 1999, 2002, ’04, ’06, ’09 and 2013, and all but one of the six finishes have been agonizing, as Mickelson has been in position to win on the back nine of the final round in all but the 2002 U.S. Open.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that 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 said. “When I do, hopefully the experience that I've had in the past will allow me to handle it better in the future.”
Mickelson is on the site of the initial heartbreak finish 15 years ago.
• 1999 – At Pinehurst No. 2, Mickelson fell victim to a 20-foot Payne Stewart par putt on the 72nd hole as Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was soon to give birth to the couple’s first child.
• 2002 – At Bethpage Black, he never pulled closer to Tiger Woods than two strokes in the final round and lost by three.
• 2004 – At Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson birdied the 16th hole to take the lead, but three-putted on the 17th green for a double bogey and lost by two to Retief Goosen.
• 2006 – At Winged Foot, perhaps the most heartbreaking of all his runner-up finishes, Mickelson had a chance to win his third major in succession and had a one-stroke lead on the 18th tee. But his drive hit the roof of a hospitality tent and bounced into a trash can, his second shot hit a tree, his third plugged in a greenside bunker and he made double bogey to finish a shot behind Geoff Ogilvy. Of the finish, Mickelson said moments afterward, “I am such an idiot.”
• 2009 – Back at Bethpage, Mickelson was tied for the lead with five holes to play following an eagle on the 13th hole, but bogeyed the 15th and 17th holes and missed some reasonable birdie putts to finish two strokes behind Lucas Glover.
• 2013 – At Merion, Mickelson held a lead after holing a 76-yard wedge on the 10th hole for eagle and was still tied for the lead before making a sloppy bogey on the 15th hole and finished two strokes behind Justin Rose.
Mickelson, who turns 44 Monday, has given few indications this year that he’ll contend this week.
He hasn’t been terrible, but he’s been far from great. Mickelson has seven top-20 finishes in 14 events, but none of them are top-10s. His top finish is a tie for 11th both last week in the FedEx St. Jude Classic and in early May at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he shot a 76 in the final round.
He has withdrawn twice because of side and back injuries, and missed three cuts, including at the Masters Tournament for the first time in 17 years.
“I feel as good about my game today as I have all year,” Mickelson said. “That’s not saying a lot, because I haven't played well all year, but last week was a good week for me. … I haven't had the form this year to get too excited.”
He had similarly consistent but unspectacular results in seven events in 2010 before winning his third green jacket at Augusta National Golf Club, though he had won twice late in 2009.
This is the longest Mickelson has gone in a season without a victory since he went winless in 2003, and it’s the second time he’s been winless this late in the season in the past 15 years.
The five-time major winner revealed that he will at least begin the tournament by returning to the claw putting grip he used some last year “in an effort to have a little bit lighter grip pressure and create a softer roll,” he said. “The greens here are quick … so I want to have more of a longer, smoother stroke on these greens.”
The often-tinkering Mickelson used the claw grip during a final-round 72 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and also acknowledged the move may be temporary. “Right now the game plan is ‘X’, but it could be ‘Y’ in a matter of minutes,” said Mickelson, who is ranked 103rd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. “This is giving me a chance to put the best roll on the golf ball. If that's what it takes, I'm willing to take any risk and be accountable either way.”
Though he has struggled putting this year, Pinehurst fits Mickelson’s diverse short game. The turtle-back greens and closely-mown green surrounds present short-game challenges, leading Mickelson to believe this U.S. Open venue may be the one that suits him the best. He developed his ability and imagination around the greens by practicing the short game daily in his back yard as a kid.
“I'm not going to put that pressure on me and say that this is the only week or only opportunity, but it's probably the best opportunity, because the golf course is so short-game oriented, because the greens are so repellant and the shots around the greens play a premium amongst all the Open venues that we have had,” Mickelson said. “… This is certainly as good a chance as I'll have.”
The close calls began at Pinehurst, and Mickelson could choose no better place to cap them with a victory and complete the grand slam.
“Pinehurst has so many great memories for me, even though it's not a place that I have won a national championship,” Mickelson said. “To do it right here where Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens. 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.”