PINEHURST, N.C. – This isn’t a normal week. It was never going to be.
Phil Mickelson said as much with his body language and his preparation and his outspoken assessment regarding everything that is on the line at the 114th U.S. Open.
He’s owned the reality of the situation with confident abandon that this Open, this Pinehurst Open, would be the crowning achievement of what is already a Hall of Fame career.
It would give Lefty a career Grand Slam and end more than two decades of trail and largely failure in his national championship. And it would bring his legacy full circle, back to the moment he finished runner-up to the late Payne Stewart at the 1999 Open for the first of six near misses.
In quintessential Phil style he hasn’t tried to make this Open anything less.
“This is a special week. This is a special tournament, a tournament that means a lot to me,” he said on Thursday.
In word and deed Mickelson has embraced this week with a once-in-a-lifetime focus.
He spent four hours on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon working on his game, particularly his putting, and following an even-par 70 to start his week he bolted for the practice putting green for more field work before he even spoke to the media.
On Wednesday, Mickelson figured that the retro No. 2 course was a perfect fit for him, with acres of rough replaced by waste areas that are dotted with love grass and enough humps and bumps to send a mountain goat searching for a Dramamine fix.
Lefty figured, as only he can, that in a chipping contest he liked his chances.
But the 43-year-old failed his first Donald Ross exam at the 15th hole, his sixth hole of the day, when his tee shot sailed long and, faced with about a billion options, he chipped through the green and made the first of three bogeys.
From tee to green on Day 1 Mickelson proved up to the historical task, hitting nine of 14 fairways – impressive primarily because of his aggressive approach with the driver this week – and 13 of 18 greens in regulation.
“This golf course is a course where I get a similar feeling that I get at Augusta where I don't have to be perfect,” Mickelson said.
“I can miss shots. I can miss greens and still get up and down. I always have a chance. There's not the hack-it-out-rough. It is challenging. There are difficult shots, but they're manageable and hittable if you pull them off.”
His putting, however, remains suspect, which prompted his post-round rap session on Pinehurst’s crusty practice green.
“I've got to make some 15-, 20-footers, the ones that can go either way, to shoot a good enough number here,” he said. “There's not enough pins that you can go at and send that 20-footer up the hill. I've got to make some of those. I didn't make any today, but I'm going to keep working on it.”
Mickelson huddled with putting coach Dave Stockton Sr. early Tuesday in search of answers, reverted to a modified claw grip and spent much of Wednesday afternoon rolling in one-handed 5-footers.
“I told him, ‘You’re playing the British Open this week. I don’t think you can hammer anything,’” Stockton said. “You’ve got to have the touch.”
He may also need a little patience, which will be hard to come by considering the scope of this week’s championship.
Although Lefty still has a handful of U.S. Open opportunities ahead of him, there is no denying that he is much closer to the end of his storied career than the beginning.
It’s probably why he has chosen to embrace this mountain instead of plugging his head into one of Pinehurst’s ubiquitous sandy natural areas.
“I don't know if it will be this week or next year or the year after,” he said. “I do still have 100 percent confidence that I'll be able to break through and get one.”
On that cool, wet Father’s Day 15 years ago, Stewart took Mickelson’s face into his hands on the 72nd hole and offered the only solace he could think of: “You’re going to be a father. You’ll have plenty of chances to win (the Open).”
In many ways returning to Pinehurst is a vivid reminder that those chances are dwindling and that he must make the most of what remains, because pressure he can deal with, but failure is unacceptable.