PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s likely that in the 110-year history of the U.S. Open, no player has ever said they didn’t want this championship to end. But there was Phil Mickelson, after the second round, saying that he had fun and wished that Round 3 would get here sooner.
This is the toughest test in golf. It’s the game’s most mentally and physically demanding challenge. Yet, Mickelson played the second round here at Pebble Beach like he was beating the brains out of his little brother in his Torrey Pines backyard some 25 years ago.
Mickelson was un-Lefty-like during a first-round 75 where he putted terribly and made no birdies. But Friday, he made five birdies in the first eight holes (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8) and cruised to a 5-under 66, the lowest score of the championship by two shots. Mickelson is tied for second place with Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson and Ryo Ishikawa, who all are two shots behind Graeme McDowell.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen him play,” said Padraig Harrington, who shot consecutive 73s playing alongside Mickelson and a struggling Y.E. Yang. “He had the ball under a whole lot of control out there. It was the easiest 66 you’ll ever see.”
After the first round, Mickelson swore he was hitting it well enough to win and that he just needed to chat with his putting guru Dave Stockton to help get the flatstick back into a groove. They spent time talking about setup and it helped get the ball started on the correct line better.
“I knew I had been putting well,” Mickelson said. “It was just a minor tweak here or there that was going to make the difference.”
Did it ever? Although Mickelson said he was pleased with his round, the reality is that it could’ve been considerably lower. He missed a birdie attempt from 8 feet on the 13th hole and missed a 10-footer for birdie on the par-5 14th hole. But, the key to the round was that, other than a ragged bogey on the ninth hole, Mickelson never struggled to make par. For one day it was Mickelson, not Els, who was the Big Easy.
“I felt like I wasn’t overstressing the entire round trying to hit miraculous shots,” he said.
Instead, Mickelson was making everyone else in the field stress about his presence on the leaderboard, much the way most have done while watching Tiger Woods in the past. Sure, we’re only halfway home to the Halfway Slam, but we’re 36 holes away from what would be Mickelson’s finest moment. He’s had plenty, but after five second-place finishes here he has a chance to win his beloved U.S. Open, ascend to the top of the World Ranking and head to St. Andrews for a British Open where talk of a Grand Slam would be in full bloom at a place where Woods has dominated.
But Mickelson knows as well as anyone not to get ahead of himself. That’s why wife Amy and their three children were scheduled to arrive at Pebble Beach late Friday evening. Since Mickelson has such a late tee time Saturday, plans called for a family breakfast and a few games of chess, a similar schedule to that of Saturday at Augusta two short months ago.
The elements aren’t going to get any easier. There are several formidable foes in contention, namely Els, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year who has won this championship twice before but not since 1997. And the golf course is expected to become a typical U.S. Open weekend where the greens will get firmer and the hole locations will get tougher.
But the man who owns four major championships doesn’t seem fazed a bit. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“I think this is the greatest place for a golfer to hold an Open, to be able play one of the most beautiful golf courses and have it be in U.S. Open conditions,” Mickelson gushed. “This is so much fun and I don’t want the weekend to end.”
Fun. There’s that word again.