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June 7, 2014

Mickelson eager for final piece of Grand Slam puzzle

In his home near San Diego, Phil Mickelson has the trophies from the five major championships he has won.

In his home near San Diego, Phil Mickelson has the trophies from the five major championships he has won.

There are three silver replicas of the Augusta National clubhouse from his Masters victories, a replica of the Wannamaker Trophy from his 2005 PGA Championship win and, most recently, the Claret Jug from his victory in the British Open Championship last July in Scotland.

Mickelson also has six silver runner-up medals from the times he has finished second – or tied for second – in the U.S. Open. He just doesn’t know where.

“I honestly don’t know,” Mickelson said. “I’m sure I have them somewhere ... ”

It has been 15 years since Mickelson, then a 28-year old awaiting the birth of his first child, finished second in the U.S. Open for the first time.

Mickelson’s shoulders slumped slightly when he watched Payne Stewart knock in a 15-foot par putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 for an electrifying one-stroke victory near the end of a gray, drizzly Sunday. Then, Stewart – who would die in a plane crash three months later – cupped Mickelson’s face and told him he would love being a father.

Now, Mickelson returns to Pinehurst still chasing the U.S. Open trophy. He comes with great expectations: He can become only the seventh golfer ever to win each of the four major tournaments.

He also comes to Pinehurst in the shadow of an insider trading investigation.

Just over a week ago, Mickelson was approached following a tournament round by FBI agents who asked to speak with him regarding possible insider trading violations. Mickelson was linked in published reports to investment tycoon Carl Icahn and sports gambler Billy Walters regarding stock trades they made.

Mickelson referred the agents to his lawyer, who stated publicly that Mickelson is not the target of an investigation. Mickelson proclaimed his innocence, saying “I have done absolutely nothing wrong,” when he addressed the issue at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

Mickelson says he has cooperated with authorities and will continue to do so.

His professional focus is on completing a quest that began at the 1999 U.S. Open in Pinehurst. Then, Mickelson battled for a championship while his wife, Amy, was due to deliver their child any day. Mickelson insists he would have left immediately had the beeper in his golf bag gone off, alerting him that Amy had gone into labor at home in Arizona. It didn’t happen and their daughter Amanda was born the day after the tournament’s legendary finish.

Mickelson is still waiting on the U.S. Open. Rather than dwell on the frustrations of missed opportunities that left him second best six times, he says he looks forward to the tournament every year.

“It’s my national championship,” Mickelson said, walking in the sunshine during a pro-am round at the Memorial Tournament recently. “I love the tournament and I love the challenge ... ”

Relentless optimism

Mickelson has a relentless optimism, a reservoir of self-belief that has defined him along with his brilliant short game and engaging personality.

In 2006, three days after his most wince-inducing U.S. Open moment – his double bogey off a hospitality tent on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot Golf Club (N.Y.) that led him to say “I am such an idiot” – Mickelson and his family made a previously planned trip to Disneyland with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and his family.

“We never talked about (Winged Foot),” Mackay said.

There are near-miss chapters on Pinehurst, two on Bethpage Black (N.Y.), one on Winged Foot, one on Shinnecock Hills (N.Y.) and one on Merion (Pa.).

The details are different but the story arc is similar.

“He’s always going to think he can win,” Mackay said.

Like Jack Nicklaus and the Canadian Open. Nicklaus finished second there seven times with no wins.

“(Wife Barbara) kept saying, ‘I’m going to send you back until you do it right,’ ” Nicklaus said. “I never did do it right. But maybe Phil will do it right.”

Mickelson sees parallels in his own history.

“To me, it’s much like before I won the Masters in 2004. I had like 10 years where I was in the top six or eight, seven times,” he said. “I just felt like it meant I play the course well and I’ll eventually break through. I feel the same way about the U.S. Open. I play that style of golf well and I feel like I’ll eventually break through.”

There is a rich irony in Mickelson saying his playing style fits the U.S. Open, which typically demands careful and conservative play, while Mickelson is known for his brash, aggressvie style.

“It’s really been a tournament where I’ve played some of my best golf and had some of my best performances,” Mickelson said.

Because the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst and because it’s now the only trophy standing between Mickelson and the career Grand Slam, there is a renewed relevance to his history. It’s almost forgotten that Mickelson tied for 33rd when the U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst in 2005, when Mickelson wasn’t fond of the course setup, which featured thick rough and sandy fringes – much different than 1999.

When Mickelson thinks about Pinehurst, he thinks primarily of ’99. Still, he says, “It is emotional.”

So close on and off course

When Mackay arrived at Pinehurst on Monday of tournament week in ’99, he didn’t expect Mickelson to show up because his wife, Amy, was so close to giving birth.

But Mickelson showed up, and handed Mackay a beeper and a commandment.

“He gives me the beeper when he gets out of the car and matter of factly told me, ‘I don’t care when this thing goes off, you tell me. I don’t care if it’s the 18th tee on Sunday or (No.) 1 tee on Thursday.’ He was flat-out going home,” Mackay said.

With Amy at home in Arizona taking medication to delay the birth of their first child, Mickelson entered the final round on Sunday trailing Stewart by one stroke. He lost by a stroke when Stewart sank a 30-foot, par-saving putt on the final hole to win the tournament.

Amanda was born the next day.

Three years later, in 2002, Mickelson finished second to Tiger Woods at Bethpage Black on Long Island, surging into contention late. But he never got closer than three strokes from the lead on the weekend.

It felt different in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, a classic, wind-swept course on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Mickelson led by a stroke with two holes remaining but he double-bogeyed the par-3 17th, catching a bad break on a bunker shot, then three-putting from 6 feet above the hole on a baked-out green.

Retief Goosen, who made long putts on greens no one else could handle, won a championship that had belonged to Mickelson for most of four rugged days.

“I got into my car and had a message from (caddie) Joe LaCava and he said no matter what you do, don’t ever watch a replay (of the final round), which is advice I should have listened to,” Mackay said. “Nine times out of 10 when Phil plays as well as he did that week, he’s going to win and he didn’t.”

Winged Foot near-miss

Then came Winged Foot in 2006 and Mickelson’s most memorable Open mistake. He hit a driver on the par-4 finishing hole when the prudent play was to hit a fairway wood or long iron to get his first shot in play, knowing a par would win the tournament and a bogey assured a playoff.

The killer wasn’t the drive off the hospitality tent but being too aggressive with his second shot that left him nowhere to go with his third.

What the closing double bogey hides is the fact Mickelson was lucky to be where he was. He didn’t play well at Winged Foot, especially on that Sunday. He hit only two fairways in regulation in the final round, relying on his short game to keep him in contention.

“It would have been the greatest accomplishment, possibly ever, given how I drove the golf ball and how few fairways I hit, to win a U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It was the best short game display of my career,” Mickelson said.

It would have also been a third straight major championship victory for Mickelson, who won the 2005 PGA Championship and 2006 Masters.

In the rain-soaked and mud-spattered awards ceremony after Lucas Glover won the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage, tournament officials had only two runner-up medals on hand. The problem was David Duval, Ricky Barnes and Mickelson had tied for second.

“Don’t worry about me,” Mickelson deadpanned during the ceremony. “I have plenty.”

Merion misery

The 2013 U.S. Open was the one Mickelson believed would end differently.

The week started with him flying home from Philadelphia to California to see his daughter Amanda – the one born the day after the ’99 U.S. Open ended at Pinehurst – complete middle school.

Mickelson flew overnight Wednesday to make his first-round tee time at Merion, near Philadelphia, and his opening-round 67 put him in the lead. He took a one-stroke lead on his 43rd birthday into the final round on Father’s Day.

Mickelson holed a 75-yard wedge shot for an eagle at the par-4 10th and a one-stroke lead with eight holes remaining.

“I thought I was going to get my first Open,” Mickelson said.

But two hours later, Justin Rose looked skyward at the memory of his late father as he won at Merion, two strokes ahead of Mickelson and Jason Day.

Mickelson stayed in bed for three days at home after the loss, finally pulling himself up for a family vacation in Montana. He called it the toughest loss of his career.

“Part of it is being honest with it,” Mickelson said. “Because if you try to deny it and act like it doesn’t hurt and it’s no big deal, well, you’re just lying to yourself.”

Golf is about coping with failure, most of the time you lose playing tournament golf. Ben Hogan said, in effect, the measure of a player is the quality of his misses.

Mickelson used what happened at Merion to fuel him a month later when he won the British Open Championship at Muirfield, the most satisfying victory of his career. He won the game’s oldest championship on an unforgiving links course with a brilliant final round.

“I never knew if I’d be able to win this tournament,” Mickelson said that afternoon in Scotland. “I hoped and believed it but you never know.”

That gave him championships in three of the major tournaments – the British Open, the Masters and the PGA. Now, he needs a U.S. Open trophy to complete the career Grand Slam.

Only six players – Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods – have won all four major championships in their careers.

Arnold Palmer didn’t do it. Neither did Sam Snead nor Tom Watson nor Lee Trevino.

“In my mind there’s a difference in the players that have won all four majors and those that haven’t,” Mickleson said at the recent Memorial Tournament.

“If you’ve won all four majors, you’ve played a complete style of golf throughout your career at the highest level. ...

“I feel like I’m in a group of a number of great players who have had phenomenal careers and I’m honored to be a part of them.

“But if I’m able to get that last piece, I would feel in my own mind I would get elevated to the way I look at the others that have completed that Grand Slam. I just feel like that’s the greatest accomplishment.”

Is there room on his trophy case for a U.S. Open trophy?

“You make room,” Mickelson said.

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