Will U.S. Open spotlight be too harsh for Mickelson?

By Randall MellJune 5, 2014, 9:37 pm

Phil Mickelson sets off next week to climb the last great mountain of his career with an awful lot of extra baggage to carry.

He will arrive at Pinehurst No. 2 with the weight of more than history pressing down on him in his bid to finally win the U.S. Open and become just the sixth player to complete professional golf’s career Grand Slam.

At least that’s what it looks like to some of the game’s top analysts.

There’s the weight of an FBI/Securities Exchange Commission investigation hanging over Mickelson. There’s the weight of sluggish form, an aging body and heightened scrutiny to contend with as he plays one of the most demanding championships in the game.

“I personally don’t think it’s good for him on any level,” said Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA Championship winner and former U.S. Ryder Cup captain who will serve as an analyst for ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open. “If you look at Mickelson's career, when the focus has ever really, truly been on Phil, he has always struggled. When he's trying to win the U.S. Open, or when he's trying to become No. 1 in the world, or whatever it is, it's always been difficult for him.

“When he's spotlighted, it seems to never go completely like he wants, or like it's expected. When he kind of slips in under the radar, things are always better.”

Then again, Azinger will tell you Mickelson holds a trump card you can never discount him playing.

Photos: Phil Mickelson through the years

Mickelson’s confidence has impressed Azinger from the day they first met.

“I'll just remind you of this, when Mickelson had not won a major, I remember him saying, `It's not whether I win a major, it's how many am I going to win.’

“I think the fact that he's taking this head on just fits his personality. Embracing it is one of those things that he does.”

Mickelson will be the big story at Pinehurst No. 2 for so many reasons.

There is his history there. He got beat by Payne Stewart with a putt at the final hole when Stewart won the U.S. Open in 1999. Stewart’s victory was made more poignant when he clasped a young Mickelson’s face between his hands and encouraged Mickelson that his time would come in the championship, and that he should relish fatherhood with the imminent arrival of Mickelson’s first child. Stewart would die four months later in a plane crash.

There is Mickelson’s overall history in the U.S. Open. Six times he finished second in the championship, more than anyone who ever played the game.

There is the fact that Mickelson will turn 44 on the Monday after the U.S. Open is scheduled to finish, and there is this feeling that time is beginning to run out in his quest, with his form not there to take advantage of his chance next week. For the first time in more than a decade, Mickelson arrives for a U.S. Open without a win for the year. He doesn’t even have a top-10 finish in a PGA Tour event this year.

“The way he’s been putting, he’s got no chance,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said.

There is also the uncertainty of where the federal investigation into possible insider trading will go, even with Mickelson making assurances that he has done nothing wrong.

“I don't know if he's going to struggle,” says Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN analyst. “He could certainly contend, but I don't see him hitting on all cylinders well enough to win. That's because he hasn't been playing well, and this is on top of him. I don't care if he's innocent, and I really believe he probably is, but it's still weighing on top of you. It’s in the press and you see it every day. It's not good timing for Phil Mickelson.”

Miller says he probably won’t talk much about the federal investigation when he is on the air calling the U.S. Open for NBC, because he’s uncomfortable not knowing the facts. He sees other problems, though, challenging Mickelson.

There’s an erratic putter in Mickelson’s way, a problem going into a championship where so many par-saving putts are required to win.

“It’s the short putts that are haunting him,” Miller said. “Seems like he's really worried about those little short putts.

“He's got to, somehow, with [Dave] Stockton or [Dave] Pelz, come up with a different putter, or a different technique, that makes him feel like he has found the Holy Grail, so to speak, if he's going to have a chance to win at Pinehurst.”

Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee isn’t discounting Mickelson being able to summon something special.

“I almost get the impression that Phil's interest is waning in regular Tour events, unless he's in the hunt, late on Sunday, or it's a major championship,” Chamblee said. “I think Phil has done just about everything there is to do in the game of golf. He could not  hardly, in the Tiger woods era, have asked for any more success.

“The one thing left for him is to win the U.S. Open, and add to his major tally. With the distractions coming into this U.S. Open, who knows what's going to happen, but Phil has been incredibly resilient to distractions throughout his career, of every sort. It would not surprise me if Phil showed up and dazzled us for four days.”

Nobody should be surprised if Mickelson’s carrying a surprise in all that baggage he’s taking to Pinehurst No. 2. He does, after all, thrive on surprising folks with his ability to win from tough spots.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.