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Despite Phil's struggles, one event can change everything

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – From the moment Phil Mickelson hoisted the claret jug on the 18th green at Muirfield last July, the entire golf world has known the next event that would truly matter to him was going to be the U.S. Open at Pinehurst this June.

It wasn’t as if Mickelson didn’t want to win every time he teed it up in the 11 months between last year’s British Open and this year’s U.S. Open, it was just a fact that everyone  including Mickelson  knew that a win at Pinehurst would put an exclamation point on his hall-of-fame career.

The Open begins in less than five weeks. Mickelson has played 19 times since his stunning win at Muirfield and has one top 10  a T-6 at the Barclays last August. Since the PGA Tour’s new wraparound season began in October, he has played 12 times, failed to play the weekend five times (three missed cuts, two WDs) and doesn’t have a top-10 finish.

His frustration may have peaked on Friday when he missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass, meaning he wouldn’t play the weekend at The Players for a second straight year.

“I don’t feel bad about the game,” he insisted afterward. “But mentally, I’m just soft right now.”

It’s hard to know exactly what that means. Players who have won 42 times on Tour, five of them majors, aren’t soft. They rarely admit that they don’t know exactly what to do next when they aren’t playing well. There’s always an upbeat lament of some kind: I’m hitting it well, I’m just not making any putts; I’m really close, it was just a couple of loose shots today; the swing-change I’m working on is just now starting to feel comfortable.

Mickelson talked like that in his pre-Players news conference. He had finally shown signs that the light at the end of this tunnel wasn’t a train last week in Charlotte, especially on Saturday when he lit up Quail Hollow with a 63 that put him into contention.

That’s the kind of number a great player shoots when he’s ready to go on a binge.

Except Mickelson went in the other direction, shooting 76 on Sunday  missing four putts inside 5 feet  and then following that up with 75-70 this week. On the bright side, he will get to spend Mother’s Day weekend with his family.

That was about the only good news for Team Mickelson on Friday. Mickelson spent most of Thursday and Friday on the golf course with that confused look he gets when he absolutely knows he doesn’t have it and can’t figure out exactly where to look for it.

Nevertheless, the story line hasn’t changed. Mickelson still has five weeks to get his act together. He has never been a model of consistency during his career. He doesn’t rack up top 10s so much as he racks up wins. His win at the British last summer overshadowed everything else he did throughout the rest of the year. In fact, it was generally regarded as THE performance of the year.

If Mickelson can win at Pinehurst, none of the ugly numbers he has put up since last August’s PGA will matter even a little bit. One of Mickelson’s strengths has been his ability to find his game when people are questioning him. He was 33 when he won his first major in 2004 at just about the time when people were starting to think he was one of those guys destined to make a lot of money playing golf but not make any history.

He came back after his wife Amy’s bout with breast cancer to dramatically win the Masters in 2010 and his British Open win  not to mention his near miss at Merion the month before  came when the whispers that he was done winning majors  especially while dealing with psoriatic arthritis, which is both chronic and incurable  were getting very loud.

That’s why looking at the Mickelson who has limped through this year, missing the cut at the Masters for the first time since 1999, and making a judgment on his chances at Pinehurst is probably a mistake.

He knows what that week means to his career. Even though he jokes that his six runner-up finishes in the Open should count for one win, he knows that winning there will put him in that very elite group of players who have won the career grand slam.

One thing that often gets missed about Mickelson because of the boyish smile he flashes even when he isn’t playing well, is how much he burns inside to win. No one can win as often as Mickelson has without having that burn.

There’s no doubt he left TPC Sawgrass angry and frustrated and knowing he has considerable work to do in the next 33 days. All the happy talk about driving the ball better than he ever has and about feeling good about his game is just that  talk.

Mickelson will do a lot of grinding the next few weeks. He will play at the Memorial and at Memphis, and he will take a couple of days once the golf course is closed to the public to go play Pinehurst.

He will practice 4-footers until he sees them in his sleep, and he will think and think  perhaps over-think  about how he needs to attack the redesigned Pinehurst. He knows he’s going to be asked a million times about the career slam and winning an Open and his memories of Payne Stewart and 1999.

Mickelson is ready for all that. His last three rounds of golf  the last one in Charlotte and the two here at Sawgrass  were aggravating because he thought he had found his game when he walked off the golf course last Saturday.

Whatever he found that day, he lost the next. That’s golf. When he walked away from the scoring trailer Friday evening he was still searching.

Fortunately, there’s still time to find what he’s looking for. The clock, though, is definitely ticking.