It’s one of the traditions of the tournament Nicklaus created. He is always there at the end, waiting to congratulate the winner, then hosting the winner’s news conference and offering glowing praise.
“I’d love to win Jack’s tournament,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson won the Byron Nelson in 1995, his third full year on the PGA Tour. Two years later, he made a charge that made Arnold Palmer proud when he won the Bay Hill Invitational. He has won on the two courses that claim to be Hogan’s Alley - Colonial and Riviera.
About all that’s missing is winning at Jack’s place.
He has never finished better than a tie for fourth in 2006, when he finished three shots behind Carl Pettersson . His only other top-10 came in 2002, when he was four shots behind in a tie for ninth.
“I like the feeling of coming back to a tournament knowing that I’ve won it. It brings back special memories,” Mickelson said. “And I don’t have those yet here, and I’d like to see if I can change that.”
Mickelson might find inspiration from the group that will join him Thursday when the Memorial gets under way - Charl Schwartzel , whom Mickelson helped into a green jacket at The Masters in April, and Luke Donald , playing his first event as No. 1 in the world.
Donald won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week in a playoff over Lee Westwood to replace him atop the world ranking, becoming only the 15th player to be No. 1 in the 25 years of the ranking.
Mickelson is the second-most accomplished player of his generation behind Tiger Woods - 39 wins on the PGA Tour, four majors, two World Golf Championships. No one else is even close to that kind of success.
But he has never been No. 1 in the world. He has never won a PGA Tour money title or been voted Player of the Year.
“That’s incredible to me,” Fred Couples said.
Mickelson had a dozen chances to go to No. 1 last year as Woods began his slide, and couldn’t get it done during a tough season of health issues - not only his wife recovering from breast cancer, but Mickelson diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis that took the latter half of the year to get under control.
Now comes the meat of his schedule, with three majors over the next three months, and a tournament he would love to win this week.
Nicklaus and Mickelson have a strong relationship, and perhaps no other moment was more emotional than the Presidents Cup in 2005. Mickelson was designated to present a portrait to Nicklaus and his wife of their beloved grandson, Jake, who drowned earlier that year when the toddler fell into a hot tub. The Americans delivered a big win the next day at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.
Now if they can just hook up behind the 18th green.
“It’s funny how I have not played as well in this event as I would have liked,” Mickelson said. “It feels a lot like Riviera to me, where I have loved the golf course early in my career and have not ever played that well. And I’m hoping to turn that around. For whatever reason, it clicked at Riviera and I started playing well and winning it a couple of times.'
“This is a special tournament,” he said. “This course is just a terrific course, one of the better ones we play. I’m hoping that it clicks and I play as well on this course as I know I can.”
Even with a shift in the ranking that favors Europeans, and even with Woods mending his left leg at home, the Memorial has another strong field with six of the top 10 players in the world and 12 of the top 20. That includes Rory McIlroy , in a rare PGA Tour visit, along with Dustin Johnson , Nick Watney and Players champion K.J. Choi .
The one big change at Muirfield Village is at the 16th hole, a par 3 that used to play slightly uphill, protected by a deep bunker in the front and bunkers in the back. Nicklaus once described the 16th as a way to get from the 15th green to the 17th tee, so to add some character to the hole, he shifted drainage to create a large pond in front of a green that now angles to the back left.
“It’s certainly more difficult,” Mickelson said. “You’re hitting over the water. I thought if we shot up the green, I might think about 2 a few times. But really, I’ll just try to make a 3 there.”
He went for a birdie 2 in the pro-am Wednesday.
“I hit my first shot in the water and made 5, so I’m going to try to not do that in the tournament,” he said with a grin.
Mickelson hasn’t played since The Players Championship, deciding against Colonial and the Byron Nelson. He is not playing next week in Memphis, instead going to Congressional to start preparing for the U.S. Open.
This will be his last tune-up before the U.S. Open. It would be a good time for Mickelson to find his form going into the U.S. Open, and to get a chance to spend more time with Nicklaus.