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.
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.