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Lefty reliving early major struggles in hunt for U.S. Open

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The fourth hole at Bethpage Black is a challenging, uphill par 5 that begins in a valley and rises to a glorious peak. It is the signature hole of a golf course that has twice hosted the national championship.

It is also the place I met Mary Mickelson for the first time.

The year 2002 was a different time in golf. Tiger Woods was No. 1 and on the march to a second straight major championship. Mary’s son was a star, too, but was having a harder time in the biggest events.

I stuck out my hand and shook Mary’s. She was polite but weary, her face seeming to say, Are you one of the reporters who has been badgering my son about not winning majors?

It is impossible to separate Phil’s chase for the U.S. Open now from his long-ago quest to win a major more than a decade ago.
There is just too much overlap to ignore – the question of the discipline it takes to win, the agony of coming so close so often, the unending love from the galleries that have tried to carry him on their shoulders.

All of those factors will be in play when Phil tees it up Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2 alongside U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick and U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, one of the six men who has trumped him for an Open.

Even Phil has described his push for the national championship in a similar light to his hunt for his first major. He doesn’t believe he will win just one U.S. Open. He sees many in his future.

It seemed heresy when, 13 years ago, he said the same thing about winning majors only minutes after David Toms broke his heart at the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, much in the style that Payne Stewart had done it in the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst.


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“So much is made of me trying to win my first major, but I’m not trying to win one, I’m trying to win a bunch of majors,” Phil said in Atlanta. “And it’s frustrating I can’t get past the first. It’s not as if I’m trying to win one, yet I’m having so much difficulty with the first.”

Phil was honest, blunt and, at times, defiant in his quest to win majors, famously pushing back at reporters who questioned his aggressive approach. No one wondered about his skills. Many wondered about his patience.

When Phil broke through at the 2004 Masters – adding a more dependable cut shot to go with that hot draw - the storyline changed.

Phil began picking off majors at a Hall of Fame clip – the 2005 PGA Championship (where I saw Mary once again, tears of joy spilling from her eyes as her son won a second major), the 2006 Masters, the 2010 Masters, the improbable 2013 British Open.

All the while the U.S. Open kept eluding him, slipping out of his grasp on all those Father’s Days.

Greg Norman spent his career in the downstairs locker room at Augusta National, the nearby upstairs champions locker room forever out of reach.

Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson needed only a PGA Championship to complete the career grand slam.

Sam Snead once said if he’d won the U.S. Open early in his career, he might have won a half dozen of them instead of answering questions about the one gap in his resume.

Phil is the one in the spotlight now, facing memories of Pinehurst and Payne, the two chances at Bethpage, the errors at Shinnecock, Winged Foot and Merion.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that I look at those close calls as a positive sign,” Phil says.

One year ago, Phil immersed himself in the majesty of Merion, stealing some time in the club’s archives to learn about its rich championship history.

Phil knows Pinehurst’s history cold. He has lived it. It has shadowed him for 15 years. This week, he has the chance to rewrite the book.