When Phil Mickelson sets out for his 24th U.S. Open just before 8 a.m. on Thursday it will arguably be the most pressure packed major championship since Tiger Woods put the finishing touches on the Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters.
Much of the pressure is self-inflicted, while other elements remain shrouded in the secrecy of a federal investigation. The byproduct, however, will be the most intense week of the 43-year-old’s life.
Within moments of winning the Open Championship last July, Mickelson was the first to arrive at the grand crossroads that will make this week’s national championship so scrutinized.
“If I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that's the sign of the complete great player,” he said at Muirfield. “I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me. There’s five players that have done that. Those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.”
Since that sunny afternoon on the Scottish coast there has been no hedging, no backtracking, no attempt to cast this week’s championship as anything other than a historic opportunity.
Much of Mickelson’s motivation to go head-to-head with his Grand Slam ambitions were born at Muirfield, where he ended nearly two decades of frustration with a closing 66 that Lefty dubbed the greatest round he’d ever played.
“Ever since he won last year at Muirfield the (career) Grand Slam became an option, something he probably thought he couldn’t do,” said Mickelson’s swing coach Butch Harmon. “Once we bought into how we wanted him to play, he’s not afraid to talk about it.”
If Woods’ career has been largely defined by unquestionable consistency, Mickelson’s has been myriad peaks and valleys. For every Muirfield there has been a Merion, every Augusta National offset by a Winged Foot.
But in a uniquely Mickelson way, he has decided to view the Grand Slam chalice half full.
“Some people view it as though he's come close and he's never done it,” Mickelson recently explained. “I see it as though I've finished second six times (at the U.S. Open), I played some of my best golf in this event, and that I should have an opportunity, and more than one opportunity, to close one out here in the future.”
Of those six bridesmaid finishes at the U.S. Open, the first came in 1999 at Pinehurst when the late Payne Stewart scrambled for par at the 72nd hole to beat Mickelson by a shot.
The No. 2 course at Pinehurst is particularly suited to Mickelson’s unique brand of golf, an often-wayward game that leans heavily on Lefty’s creativity and touch.
There will be plenty of parallels between this week and the ’99 Pinehurst Open for Mickelson – the quirky layout, the call of the national championship and a cloud of uncertainty looming just outside the ropes.
During that pitched final round in ’99, Mickelson spent the day electronically attached to a pager – for those born after 2000 think of a very short text message without emoticons. If the call came Lefty made it clear he would leave the Open to be there for the birth of his first child, Amanda, who was born the day after the final round.
Many of Mickelson’s triumphs and tragedies have been defined by such turmoil, which in a counterintuitive way makes this week’s championship almost the status quo.
As if Mickelson’s decision to embrace the enormity of the career Grand Slam wasn’t enough, the world learned two weeks ago that he has been under investigation by the FBI and Security and Exchange Commission for the better part of the last two years for possible insider trading.
On Saturday at the Memorial Tournament, two days after being approached by federal agents in Ohio, Mickelson dismissed the investigation.
“I can’t really go into much right now, but as I said in my statement, I have done absolutely nothing wrong. And that's why I've been fully cooperating with the FBI agents, and I'm happy to do so in the future, too, until this gets resolved,” Mickelson said at Muirfield Village. “Hopefully it will be soon, but for right now I can't really talk much about it.”
But then distractions large and small have defined Mickelson’s career.
In May 2009, Mickelson announced that his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that he would, “suspend his PGA Tour schedule indefinitely.” Three weeks later he finished second at the U.S. Open, his fifth runner-up in the championship, and he went on to win that season’s Tour Championship.
At the 2010 U.S. Open, Mickelson began feeling the onset of psoriatic arthritis, a condition that causes the immune system to attack the body’s joints and tendons and which left him in so much pain he couldn’t walk. At Pebble Beach, the ailment kept Mickelson from being able to grip the golf club completely and he finished fourth in the national championship with his left index finger extended during his swing.
“If you noticed, it was straight. But it was my bottom finger so I just let it hang off the shaft. I didn't really notice it. I mean, I noticed it, but it didn't affect the shot,” said Mickelson, who played his final nine holes in 39 and finished three strokes behind champion Graeme McDowell.
The federal investigation, along with his quest to complete the career Grand Slam, will be a distraction, but Mickelson is the master of compartmentalization.
“He doesn’t hide behind anything. He is very resilient person,” Harmon said. “He reminds me of a cornerback in the NFL, the last play never happened. He has the ability to put stuff behind him.
“He’s very open about (winning the career Grand Slam), a lot of guys would say, ‘It’s just another week.’ That’s not Phil’s style.”
With a mountain of distractions vying against him, it would be easy to dismiss Mickelson’s Grand Slam chances. After all, Arnold Palmer finished second at the PGA Championship three times but never cleared the career Grand Slam hurdle.
But that ignores Lefty’s history, if not his habitual ability, to rise above the chatter. It’s all born from his singular DNA. The same guy who airmailed his U.S. Open chances into the corporate tents left of Winged Foot’s 18th fairway, has won green jackets from the pine straw at Augusta National and claret jugs from the Scottish fescue.
Mickelson’s greatest attribute may be his inability to delude himself.
“It’s easier to be honest and up front about what I'm feeling and going through than it is to try and deny it, which is why, when I lose, I talk about how tough it is, because it is,” Mickelson said. “It's challenging. Like it was the biggest defeat . . . I had such a down moment after losing at Merion. The same thing at Winged Foot.”
Hiding from the obvious isn’t Mickelson’s style. He knows there is nothing normal or mundane about this week, just a historical opportunity – nothing more, nothing less.