PINEHURST – Phil Mickelson spent five hours in the stifling heat Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 2 with a lot on his mind.
He was trying to sharpen his game, figure out what it will take to finally win a U.S. Open and make enough putts with his claw grip to avoid losing to a pair of players whose combined age is younger than him.
This major has a reputation as the toughest test in golf.
It’s every bit of that for Mickelson.
“I really believe that this week is testing a player’s entire game,” Mickelson said. “Because it forces you to make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green and utilize your short game to save strokes. It’s just a wonderful test ... the best test I’ve seen to identify the best player.”
His definition of Pinehurst and its rugged, natural look would seem to require every ounce of concentration.
That could be his biggest challenge.
On the golf course, Mickelson is trying to ignore the enormous expectations on him this week. He holds the worst kind of U.S. Open record with six runner-up finishes. He needs this major to complete the career Grand Slam.
He’s a sentimental favorite at Pinehurst No. 2, where in 1999 he played the entire week knowing his wife was on the verge of delivering their first child.
Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to beat him by one shot.
Amanda Mickelson was born the next day. Stewart died in a plane crash four months later.
“Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens,” Mickelson said. “Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard, and this would be a great place to break through and do it. The flip side is that I tend to do well when it’s least expected.
“I don’t want to put the pressure on that this is the only week that I’ll have a chance,” he said. “I think I’ll have a number of great opportunities in the future years. But this is certainly as good a chance as I’ll have.”
Off the course, Mickelson has made headlines that threaten his clean image.
He was linked two weeks ago to an insider trading investigation involving activist investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler over some timely trades of Clorox stock three years ago.
FBI agents even came to the golf course to try to interview Mickelson. He referred them to his attorney, said he had done “absolutely nothing wrong” and that “I’m not going to walk around any other way.”
It would seem to be a major distraction for Mickelson.
Even though he hasn’t won in nearly a year, and he has dropped to No. 11 in the world ranking, he is the center of attention in the sand hills of North Carolina – especially with Tiger Woods still out of the game while recovering from back surgery.
Then again, it could be to Mickelson’s advantage to be at a place such as Pinehurst. The course doesn’t allow anyone to think about anything but the next shot.
“We have so many players when they have a lot of stuff swirling around them that use that four or five hours on the golf course as a sanctuary,” two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North said.
“You can focus sometimes even better, which sound crazy, but it’s your place where no one can get to you. The phone can’t ring. No one can ask you questions about whatever it is. And you get out there and find your little space. And sometimes that creates a situation where a guy can play exceptionally well.”
The investigation has not been a big topic since Mickelson said repeatedly at the Memorial that he had done nothing wrong, was cooperating and would not talk about it until it was resolved.
There were no direct questions at his news conference Tuesday, only veiled references to coping with off-course distractions.
Barclays, one of his bigger sponsors, declined to comment on Mickelson. KPMG, another major sponsor, said in a statement, “We have had a very strong relationship with Phil for a number of years, and we fully expect it to continue. We have great respect for him.”
While Mickelson’s U.S. Open record is loaded with disappointment, he sees only opportunity. To have been the runner-up six times – not to mention other U.S. Opens where he had a chance to win in the final hour – means he must be doing something right.
And he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
“I feel as good about my game as I have all year,” Mickelson said, pausing before he added, “That’s not staying a lot because I haven’t played well all year.”
He also said an analysis of his close calls in the U.S. Open revealed that it rained during the week in five of those second-place finishes.
“So I’m pulling for rain,” he said.
As for that other match? Mickelson carried the load as he and Rickie Fowler rallied from 3 down to tie the match, only for 20-year-old Jordan Spieth to make a 20-foot birdie on the 17th, and 21-year-old Justin Thomas to drill a tee shot on the 18th hole to set up a par for the win.
Another close call.
It’s a U.S. Open.
Mickelson should be used to that by now.