BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. ' Phil Mickelson already had crossed the finish line the last time he showed up at Oakland Hills.
Now he can only hope he is hitting his stride.
Mickelson is the betting favorite at the PGA Championship, his last chance to win a major in a year that has been filled with disappointment at the biggest events.
There was a 75 in the third round of the Masters that knocked him out of contention. There were no drivers in his bag at the U.S. Open for two rounds. And he lost a ball at Royal Birkdale on his way to a 79 in the first round, a major that ended before he could settle in for a cup of tea.
This is a big week, Mickelson said Tuesday. Because right now my season, with just two wins, is just OK. But if I were able to come through on Sunday and win this event, it would make an OK year a great one.
It also might erase some sour memories of Oakland Hills.
Mickelson first met The Monster in 1996 and endured his worst finish in a U.S. Open over four rounds. He tied for 94th that week, 19 shots out of the lead. Even more forgettable was his last trip to Oakland Hills for the Ryder Cup in 2004.
He already was under more scrutiny than usual for switching from Titleist to Callaway a week before the Ryder Cup. Then he went two days away from his teammates, taking one day off and spending another day working on the adjacent North Course. U.S. captain Hal Sutton paired him with Tiger Woods, and while neither played well in both their losses, Lefty caught the brunt of the blame.
Sutton then benched him, saying Mickelson would be a cheerleader instead of a player.
It was a ragged finish to what had otherwise been a brilliant year for Mickelson, who won his first major at the Masters, was second at the U.S. Open, missed a playoff at the British Open by one shot and was two shots out of a playoff at the PGA Championship.
But his swing was gone long before he arrived at Oakland Hills for the Ryder Cup. That was when Mickelson used to pour so much into the majors that he had little left at the end of the year.
If last week was any indication, hes headed in the right direction.
Mickelson blew a chance to win the World Golf Championship at Firestone last week with three bogeys on the final four holes, although he explained Tuesday why he wasnt nearly as alarmed as everyone else.
Obviously, I didnt like the way I finished, he said. But I was so glad that I was in a position to compete for the championship, to get back into contention, to have an opportunity where every putt counted and put myself in a pressure situation heading into this event. I would have loved to have won last week ' theres no arguing that point. But I really needed to be there like I was.
Such is the aura of Mickelson, good and bad.
The winner at Firestone was Vijay Singh, a three-time major champion who, unlike Mickelson, has won a money title, PGA TOUR player of the year and was No. 1 in the world. Yet all the TV sports shows focused on the next day was Lefty.
Were they complimenting my outfit? Mickelson joked.
It wasnt his most unseemly collapse, but it still makes news. Mickelson had reason to find progress from what looked like a setback.
When Im playing a course, Im trying to take half the trouble out of play, he said. So I want to set up down the right edge of the fairway and hit a cut, and if I miss it left, it doesnt bother me. What bothers me is if I hook it.
Lefty caught the left edge of the green and found a bunker on No. 15, making bogey. He caught the left bunker on the 17th, leading to another bogey. And his hopes effectively ended with a blocked tee shot to the left rough on the 18th.
I dont look at that overly disappointed, he said. Because I missed it to the side I wanted to miss it.
It would help not to miss anything at Oakland Hills, a course that some believe might prove to be the toughest major of the year. It has been stretched out to just under 7,400 yards, a real beast for a par 70, and occasional showers this week figure to make it feel longer.
Its tougher than Torrey Pines, all things being equal, Geoff Ogilvy said.
Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in a playoff after finishing at 1-under 283. Trevor Immelman won the Masters at 8-under 280. Padraig Harrington won the British Open at 3-over 283, but Ogilvy doesnt count Royal Birkdale because of 35 mph wind.
Nothing ever was going to get as tough as Birkdale. You could put an asterisk next to it, he said. The irony will be that the U.S. Open could be the easiest course we play all year.
The difficulty of Oakland Hills always has been the greens, so heavily contoured that they likely will be slower than some majors to keep it fair. And the length since Rees Jones got his hands on the course after the Ryder Cup is most noticeable on the par 3s, such as the downhill, 257-yard ninth and the 238-yard 17th, which played so long into a breeze Monday that Bart Bryant hit a driver.
If one of the big hitters is piping it, theyre going to have a good week, Bryant said.
Mickelson can only hope hes one of those guys, and a decent year for him turns into a great season by any measure.
Woods was in this position a year ago ' without a major for the year ' when he tied a major record with a 63 in the second round at Southern Hills and went on to defend his title in the PGA Championship.
Three years ago, that was Mickelson. He had gone four months without winning until going wire-to-wire to win at Baltusrol.
I had an OK year in 2005, a couple of wins, and looked at it as though it would make an OK year great, Mickelson said. And I feel the same way this year. Its been an OK year, but winning the last major could turn it into something special.