UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wa. – As the U.S. Open folks drive west down the two-way street that runs directly to the entrance to Chambers Bay Golf Course, there’s an old Chrysler sitting on the lawn with a simple handwritten sign, “Go Phil.”
If you know golf, you know who Phil is. He doesn’t need a last name there, just like Jack, Arnie, Gary, Tiger and Rory. If you know golf, you know what this golf tournament means to Phil. If you know Phil, you know how much he wants to win this golf tournament.
Phil Mickelson, playing in his 25th U.S. Open that begins Thursday here, has accomplished virtually everything in his 23-year professional career. He’s won 42 times on the PGA Tour, with perhaps a few more left to collect. He’s won $77 million in prize money, but he’s not counting. And he has won five majors.
That’s just about everything, except one thing – the U.S. Open Championship.
He has won all the majors – The Masters, Open Championship and the PGA Championship. Never, however, has he lifted the U.S. Open trophy to complete his career Grand Slam. He has finished second in this Open six times, more than anyone in the 114-year history of the event.
Mickelson, a golf icon who turned 45 Tuesday, is the sentimental favorite in a sport that favors youth, i.e, Rory McIIroy, 25, Jordan Spieth 21, Patrick Reed, 24, Russell Henley, 25, Rickie Fowler, 26, Ryo Ishikawa, 24, Brook Koepka, 24, among others. Mickelson turned pro a year before Spieth was born and this week they are seeking the same glory.
You have to believe, based on his recent history, that his chances of the Grand Slam are fading. Last year, he played in 21 tournaments, made 17 cuts but finished in the top 10 just once. This year has been a bit better, with six cuts made in nine tournaments and three top-10s. Yet he hasn’t won a tournament since 2013, his last major – the Open Championship at Muirfield.
(He was second at the Masters in April to that all-grown-up Spieth).
He’s not trending well and, until late last year had not been swinging well at all. In fact, he said over the last couple years his swing speed has decreased “significantly.” But in what can only be termed a surprising resurgence, Mickelson said “my swing speed is back not only to where it was four or five years ago, but faster. And I’ve been able to hit 400 or 500 balls a day, where I had been limited to maybe 150 or 200 previously.
“So I’ve been able to put in the work and the effort needed,” Mickelson told the media this week. “Now I feel like I’m back on track. So each day I feel like I’m getting better. Each day my touch and my shot making is coming back. It has been a while, so I don’t know when exactly it’s all going to come together.”
Last week in the final round at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, Mickelson shot a 65 to finish third. Each day there is a growing belief within him that he can win this one.
“I’ve always been somebody, ever since I was a kid, that got motivated by failure, that worked harder because of failure,” he said. “Some people get discouraged by that, and it almost pushes them away.
“But for me it’s been a motivator to continue to work harder and get over that hump, whether it was trying to win my first Major Championship that took significantly longer than I thought it would, whether it’s trying to win an Open Championship or whether it’s trying to win a U.S. Open championship. The fact that I’ve come so close is actually a motivator for me to work harder. And it’s encouraging that I’ve done well in this tournament. It’s encouraging that I’ve had success and that I’ve played some of my best golf in this event and that I’ve had a number of opportunities.”
Even at his advanced age – for a competitive golfer – Mickelson is being mentioned as a contender among all those 20-somethings. It’s not an unreasonable projection, to wit:
- After a number of futile attempts, he broke through at Muirfield. He finally figured out links golf. Chambers Bay is a pure links golf course.
- It will take plenty of delicate wedge shots off the hard-pan, firm-and-fast surface to nudge the ball closer to the pins. Is there anyone better, ever, than Mickelson with a wedge in his hands?
- He’s long, maybe not as long as those limber kids, but length may be nullified by the extended Chambers rollouts on the fairway brownouts.
- He’s an excellent putter but those who have hotter putters coming into this week may be nullified by the all-fescue putting surfaces.
- He’s also as much motivated to win the Slam as he is dedicated. He was one of the few players who played the course extensively in recent weeks, spending two days two weeks ago on it. He also spends hours on all the greens to understand how they roll.
“I think that I’ve gone through a period these last couple of years where I haven’t played my best golf, and I feel like I’m back on the upswing,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know if I’m quite there yet or not. This week will be a good test to see just how far along I’ve come.
“I feel like I have the proper direction of my game, but you just never know, you know. It’s been a little while since I’ve played my best golf. So we’ll see. But this golf course allows for short game to save shots that may be less than perfect. It doesn’t force you to play perfect golf. There’s plenty of room to play and to recover from. And I feel like there’s a number of holes that you can capitalize and make birdies on and shoot a good number.”
What gives him one more advantage is that he loves Chambers, as it reminds him of the Scottish links courses.
“It’s really a wonderful golf course. It’s playing and set up much like what we’re used to at a British Open,” he said. “And I think this year is going to be very similar to St. Andrews. I find them to be very similar golf courses. So I think the guys that play well at St. Andrews will play well this year.
“I still have a huge obstacle, a huge challenge that I am trying to overcome and that’s to win a U.S. Open and complete the Grand Slam,” Mickelson added. “And I’m enjoying that challenge. I’m having fun with it. It’s not a burden. It’s like an exciting opportunity. And every year it comes around, I get excited to try to conquer that opportunity and complete that Grand Slam. I love it. I’m 45. I still love golf and appreciate the fact that I’m able to play at the highest level and do what I love to do.”