As the aftershocks of Phil Mickelson’s unlikely victory at the PGA Championship continue to ripple through golf and beyond, the inevitable follow-up question is obvious.
Is this the year Phil the Phantastic finally wins the U.S. Open and completes the career Grand Slam?
He hasn’t had time to fully enjoy becoming the oldest major champion ever, but Mickelson helped set his own table with his inspiring performance at the Ocean Course.
Barely a week ago, he was a virtual afterthought because he had given us no reason to think otherwise. Now, after winning at the Ocean Course – and how he did it – Mickelson is front and center again.
This storyline has turned suddenly. A few weeks ago, Mickelson was suggesting he might not accept a special invitation to the U.S. Open if one were offered, which it was.
Now he has a five-year exemption into the U.S. Open and, if only because he’s a San Diego guy, the notion of him finally capturing the one that keeps getting away has new life.
“I do believe that if I stay sharp mentally I can play well at Torrey Pines,” Mickelson said Sunday night. “I’ll take two weeks off before that (he’s playing the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial this week) and go out to Torrey and spend time, spend time on the greens and really try to be sharp for that week because I know that I’m playing well and this could very well be my last really good opportunity, although I get five more, but really good opportunity to win a U.S. Open.”
Mickelson’s U.S. Open history is familiar. Six runner-up finishes, the most of anyone. It’s his white whale.
“So, it’s very possible that this is the last tournament I will ever win, like if I’m being realistic. But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus.” – Phil Mickelson
It’s almost unfair to look at what Mickelson hasn’t done rather than what he has. Not only has he won six major championships, he has finished second 11 times and third seven times. That’s 24 top-three finishes in majors.
Still, so much of the Mickelson story has been written at the U.S. Open. There was Payne Stewart holing a putt to beat him in 1999 then grabbing Mickelson’s face to remind him he’s about to become a father for the first time. There was the lost chance at Winged Foot in 2006 and another near miss at Merion in 2013.
Now comes Torrey Pines and another chance.
Other than being situated beside an ocean (the Pacific rather than the Atlantic) and being extremely long, the U.S. Open course is more different than similar to the Ocean Course. It lacks the visual intimidation of the Ocean Course and the penalty for a big miss will be heavy rough rather than lagoons and waste areas.
Mickelson has never made a secret of his disappointment in how the South Course at Torrey Pines changed 20 years ago when Rees Jones revamped it with the intention of it being U.S. Open worthy.
But no one figured Pete Dye’s oceanside masterpiece in South Carolina would be where Mickelson brought it all together again. Was it a one-off or is there more to come?
“So, it’s very possible that this is the last tournament I will ever win, like if I’m being realistic,” Mickelson said after winning the PGA Championship.
“But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus. And maybe I go on a little bit of a run, I don’t know. But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.”
It would have been easy for Mickelson to slide into the sunset, enjoy his buddies on the PGA Tour Champions and quit trying to beat players less than half his age. Instead, he’s embraced experimentation with his equipment, changed his eating habits and committed to giving himself the best chance to win, at least physically.
He changed his diet, quit eating as much as he had and fasts at times.
“It’s been a sacrifice worth making,” Mickelson said.
The danger is when changes are slow to pay off. There is a temptation to change direction again and Mickelson was in a place where that would have been understandable.
He couldn’t manage a top-20 finish in his previous 16 Tour starts. When he shot 64 in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship three weeks ago, he didn’t break 74 in his next three rounds. Mickelson stayed the course, however.
“He actually had told me three weeks ago, I think it was right after Charlotte, he said, ‘I am going to win again soon.’ I just said, ‘Well, let’s just make sure we’re in contention on a Sunday,’” Tim Mickelson, his brother and caddie, said.
“I was trying to downplay the situation, but he said he was going to win again soon, and sure enough, obviously it worked.”
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