OAKMONT, Pa. – No player has been tempted, teased and tortured at the U.S. Open more than Phil Mickelson. Over the past 25 years, he’s racked up a record six runners-up just about every way imaginable – mis-clubs, missed fairways, missed putts – and the Open oh-fer is all that’s kept him from joining the all-time greats who have completed the career Grand Slam.
And so it was curious to hear Mickelson on Wednesday say that he wants Oakmont – by many accounts, the most difficult course in the United States – to cross the line between brutal and unplayable, as if he were welcoming even more torment.
“I feel like I’ve learned how to play that style of golf,” he said.
Mickelson has been bucking trends his entire career, of course. The usual recipe for success in the U.S. Open is to find the fairway, play the high-percentage shot into the green, take your medicine when out of position and hole 10-footers. There are many enviable aspects of Mickelson’s game, but frankly, that isn’t his style. He’s never been particularly accurate off the tee. He’s prone to taking unnecessary risks. His putter occasionally betrays him in big moments. And yet his high-wire act has produced 42 wins, including five majors, and he’s been close, agonizingly close, to breaking through at the major he covets most.
“When that line is on the edge or crossed,” he said, “I feel like I have one of my better chances to come out on top.”
Lefty doesn’t have fond memories of Oakmont. In the weeks leading up to the 2007 Open, he took too many hacks out of the thick, gnarly rough and injured his left wrist. By the time the Open rolled around, he had no chance, shooting 11 over and missing the cut for just the second time in his career. He battled a bone bruise for the next three months.
This time, Mickelson hasn’t even attempted a shot out of the rough – “I’d rather wait to get hurt during the tournament than before it,” he joked – nor has he practiced out of the fairway bunkers, which are so deep and fluffy that they’re basically a blast-out.
Mickelson has also reversed his pre-tournament routine. After practicing Monday (typically an off-day during major weeks), he flew home to San Diego to attend daughter Sophia’s eighth-grade graduation. He didn’t touch a club Tuesday because of the ceremony and long trip back, but he spent a few hours on the course late Wednesday afternoon in advance of his 2:09 p.m. ET tee time Thursday.
He said the challenge here, as it’s been ever since his surprising victory at Muirfield, is shifting his focus away from the result (the career Grand Slam!) and more into the process. So far, it’s proved to be just talk. Whether it was his self-imposed pressure or his game simply wasn’t there, the last two Opens haven’t gone well, with no finish better than 28th.
“I could BS you and tell you I didn’t think about it,” he said of the Slam. “But no, I think about it all the time.”
Though he remains relatively healthy on the eve of his 46th birthday, this Open might prove to be his last real opportunity to snag that elusive Open. His putter is no longer a liability – he’s ranked third on Tour in putting – and he’s recorded more top-10s this season (five) than in his last two listless years combined.
But Mickelson is in a vastly different position than any of the other 155 players in this week’s field. Each year he is asked, repeatedly, to reopen old wounds, to discuss the most crushing disappointments of an otherwise legendary career. Alas, there are plenty for him to sort through – most notably, the three-putt from 5 feet on 17 at Shinnecock; the wayward drive and 3-iron that nailed a tree on the 18th at Winged Foot; the airmailed wedge on 13 at Merion – but Mickelson maintains that he has the necessary experience and game plan to win. After all of the close calls, his self-belief hasn’t wavered.
“My career is built on failure,” he said with a wry smile, “and that has been a big motivator for me, because I think how you handle failure is a huge element to becoming successful.”
And so he’s here at Oakmont, embracing a potentially brutal U.S. Open, hoping for carnage and a setup that borders on unfair. Maybe his rationale isn’t so complicated, after all. Mentally, he’s already dealt with much worse.