PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Phil Mickelson is golf’s version of a theme park ride.
Thrills and spills.
That’s what we’ve come to expect when Lefty puts us in tow as he careens around the game’s spectacular stages.
His history is dizzying.
His fans could feel their hearts in their throats with Mickelson’s ball in the air after he threaded that 6-iron off the pine straw and through a narrow gap in the trees at the 13th hole at Augusta National in the final round of his Masters victory in April. The shot barely cleared the tributary to Rae’s Creek in setting up his two-putt birdie. Even Mickelson cracked on the risky nature of the play saying “What was I doing?”
Nobody is capable of the widely spectacular dimensions Mickelson brings to major championship golf.
Spectacular success and spectacular failure.
The gambling nature of Mickelson can leave him looking brilliant or stupid. He has the bravado to relish the high-wire nature of that proposition.
“I’m such an idiot.”
Those, of course, were the famous words that tumbled out of his mouth after he lost the U.S. Open at Winged Foot with his bold play at the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open.
Much is made of Mickelson hitting driver off the hospitality tent with his final tee shot there, but the risky play was his second shot, the refusal to take his medicine and punch out from behind a tree. The bold play in that loss was his attempt at a spectacular recovery in trying to carve his approach around that tree. Instead, he cracked the shot off a branch on his way to a double bogey and a heartbreaking loss.
With the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this week, Mickelson’s nature as a player promises to be severely tested once more.
“I think when I started out as a young pro, not many people, maybe even myself included, thought this would be a tournament I would play well,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “Yet I’ve been able to. So because of that, I still have a sense of pride in the way I’ve played, but, again, I would like to win my National Open.”
With a record five second-place finishes, nobody’s quite sure if this is a championship Mickelson’s meant to win. Or if he’s meant to endure the agonizing fate of Sam Snead, to live with coming so close but never seizing the prize he craves.
Conventional thinking says you win U.S. Opens playing conservatively.
Conventional and conservative aren’t qualities we associate with Mickelson’s game.
Mickelson was asked Tuesday if he fights his nature more in a U.S. Open than any other major.
“No, I don’t,” Mickelson said. “And the reason is I want to play aggressive into the green. I don't want to play aggressive off the tee, per se. I want to play aggressive at the pin. And when I play No. 6, I want to play more conservative off the tee, so that I can play more aggressive into the green. If I hit that fairway, even if it's with a 5- or 6-iron, I can play more aggressively into the green. I can hit 3-wood up by the green and make birdie with my wedge. If I miss that fairway, trying to hit 3-wood or driver, now I can't even get up on top of the hill. Now I'm playing conservative. So I approach U.S. Opens as how can I be most aggressive into the pin, not necessarily off the tee.”
Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens, concedes Mickelson probably does fight his aggressive nature in a U.S. Open, but he sees the analytical nature of Mickelson winning out this week.
“He might fight [his nature] a little bit, because he is very aggressive,” Strange said. “But I also think he’s a smart player, and with him pushing 40, he realizes consciously or subconsciously, he’s only going to have so many more chances to win and this could be as good as any chance he’ll have.”
Strange also believes Pebble Beach’s severe U.S. Open setup plays into Mickelson’s hands. Mickelson turns 40 Wednesday.
“I like Phil more based on what I see out here this week,” Strange said. “There are so many layups off the tees, where Phil doesn’t have to hit driver.”
Pebble Beach will play to 7,040 yards, short by U.S. Open standards.
“If you were playing Bethpage Black, where you had to hit driver, his lack of accuracy could hurt him,” Strange said. “Here, he has to lay back and put it in the fairway. I counted seven or eight layups out there.”
But can Mickelson consistently resist the urge to go for it with risk and reward warring in his head?
At the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2001, Mickelson needed birdie at the final hole to get into a playoff. From the middle of the fairway, he decided to hit driver and go for the green in two. Driver off the deck’s a risky play there with the Pacific Ocean left, and that’s exactly where Mickelson’s shot ended up. He could have made birdie laying up.
Will Mickelson remember that shot this week? Or will he remember his threading the needle at the Masters last April?
Can Mickelson win a U.S. Open making himself lay up time and time again?
“I’m like every other fan out there,” Strange said of watching Mickelson thread the needle from the pine straw in his Masters’ victory this year. “I think it was a great shot now.”
Strange, like so many others, marveled at Mickelson bravado in going for it.
“The ability to hit that shot, knowing full well it’s a dangerous shot, takes a lot of guts,” Strange said. “A lot of people can go for it and screw it up, but he pulled it off. Sometimes, you have to man up, you have to be a man. Sometimes, there’s no backing off. That takes a lot of guts.”
Sometimes, guts win championships. But sometimes they lose them.
“Tiger [Woods] and Phil, you want to watch them because they’re so much fun,” Strange said. “They’re going to hit great shots, and they might have a train wreck. They’re going to have some trouble, but they recover better than anyone else. That’s just fun to watch.”
Ultimately, Mickelson knows the most fun is winning.