There is no mistaking the fact that this year’s US Open Championship at Pinehurst is a big one for Phil Mickelson. Our national championship is the only one of the four major tournaments Mickelson needs to complete his personal grand slam, and it is an event in which he has finished runner-up a record six times.
Mickelson was glowing and giddy when he faced the media on Tuesday. His face lit up like a North Carolina sunrise as he spoke reverently of the restoration project which has brought the famed Pinehurst No. 2 golf course back to its roots, “This place is awesome. I really believe that this week [will test] a players’ entire game,” forcing players to make the right decisions in club selection, not only off the tee but into the green as well.
No one could blame Mickelson if he felt somewhat snake bitten after so many close calls at US Open Championships in the past. In, already, his 24th appearance in this tournament, Mickelson said he uses those past failures as motivation, “I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship, and I believe I’ll have more opportunities…when I do, hopefully, the experience that I’ve had in the past will help me to handle it better in the future.”
Phil Mickelson experienced one of his most emotional runner-up finishes at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, when he lost on the final hole to Payne Stewart. After his initial personal celebration upon sinking a putt to win by one stroke, Stewart approached Mickelson and, taking Phil’s face in his hands, reminded him that he was about to be a father, and there would be a US Open title for him somewhere in the future. “Now my daughter is going to be 15 and we’re just starting to teach her to drive…and it’s just amazing how much time has gone by,” Mickelson reminisced, adding that he can’t believe he has played in 24 US Opens.
Make no mistake about it, winning the US Open Championship is a big one for Mickelson, and he admitted as much at his pre-tournament news conference, “It’s a career goal of mine to win all four majors, and I feel like the five players to have done that (Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) have separated themselves from the other players…it shows that they have a complete game. If I am able to do that…I would look upon my own career differently.” He went on to add that he also has an affinity for our national championship, “Growing up, this is the tournament I have always felt this patriotism to, and would love to win.”
It is evident Phil Mickelson wants to win. The question on everyone’s mind is whether he can win this week. Mickelson comes into the US Open Championship this year, not only without a win, but without a top-ten finish. The pressure will be turned up a few notches, and Mickelson told the media he is not approaching this week as a do-or-die situation, “I’m going to be up front with the fact that [winning the US Open] is a goal of mine. I’m up front with the fact that I would love to do it here at Pinehurst, but I’m not going to put that pressure on me and say this is the only…opportunity.” If Phil, however, is to win a US Open, Pinehurst No. 2 gives him a great chance this weekend “It’s probably the best opportunity because the golf course is so short game oriented, because the greens are so repellent, and the shots around the green play a premium.”
The 2014 US Open Championship is, indeed, a big one for Phil Mickelson. Pinehurst No. 2, in its present-day form, seems tailor-made for his game. The thing which might keep him out of the winners circle is a slight problem in sinking those six to eight-foot putts, which has plagued him in the past weeks. To remedy that, Mickelson will used a modified “claw” grip when he holds his putter in order to create a softer touch around the hole. Even with promises his putting will improve, there are not many experts who are giving him much of a chance this year, and that might be for the best. After telling the writers why his game gives him the best chance to win at Pinehurst No. 2, Mickelson was quick with a qualification. “The flip-side,” he said “is that I tend to do well when it’s least expected.”
Golf Shots is a daily series which provides analysis and commentary on the PGA tour and golf-related topics all year long.
Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky