As the final cheers echoed in the Scottish breeze late on the July Sunday afternoon when Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship at Muirfield Golf Club last year, the attention had already begun to gently shift to this coming June.
That’s when Mickelson, the U.S. Open’s heartbreak kid, will try again to win the one major championship that has so far avoided him, this time at Pinehurst No. 2 where he came within a Payne Stewart moment of winning 15 years ago on the eve of his first child’s birth.
This year, Pinehurst seems the perfect confluence of place, person and possibility. Where better for Mickelson to win the U.S. Open than at the site of his famous near-miss?
It’s not going to happen the way Mickelson is going right now.
Before he can think about winning the U.S. Open – he’s finished runner-up a record six times – Mickelson needs to show he can finish in the top 10 of a PGA Tour event. He hasn’t done that since he tied for sixth in The Barclays last August.
He was second in Dubai earlier this year – half a world away both literally and figuratively – but since then Mickelson’s game has played peek-a-boo. At a time when Mickelson should be zeroing in on the year’s next major championship, he’s misplaced the focus knob.
“I don’t feel bad about the game but mentally I’m just really soft right now,” Mickelson said late Friday after missing the cut in The Players Championship by one stroke.
Mickelson has now missed the cut in the two biggest events this season – he shot 76-73 in his two Masters rounds – and will spend the next two weeks chasing what’s gone missing before returning to play The Memorial at Muirfield Village.
Eight times in his last 18 competitive rounds Mickelson has shot 74 or higher, including a final-round 76 last Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship when he started the last day two shots off the lead.
It’s the fickle nature of the game that form comes and goes, even for the best players. In Mickleson’s case, the good days have been outnumbered by the tough days. He plays golf with a relentless optimism, believing himself capable of almost anything, but recently the game has been a mystery to him.
Mickelson is healthy and says he’s driving the ball as well as he ever has, usually a critical component to his success. But he can’t get the ball in the hole, the basic idea behind the game.
“I'm having a hard time seeing the ball go in the hole,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t driven the ball this well ever … but getting the ball to the hole, getting the shots close, getting the putts to go, I just haven’t been able to do it.”
There are times, Mickelson has admitted, when he has trouble engaging in tournament golf. He’s been on tour for two decades and, like most great players, is driven by his pursuit of major championship victories.
While everyone else wants to focus on Mickelson at Pinehurst, he’s gone home to find his ability to focus again. There are days when it’s all there, like the 63 he shot last Saturday at the Quail Hollow Club, but then it’s gone the next day, lost in a fuzzy spirit-draining 76.
“Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it's not … like the Almond Joy (commercial),” Mickelson said.
Mickelson has generally been at his best when he has played on emotion, which explains in part why he has won three Masters. He feels an emotional switch flip when he arrives at Augusta National, though even that wasn’t enough this year.
There’s plenty of time for Mickelson to fix what’s wrong, but it’s not as simple as fixing a bad position in his swing.
“I just don’t know what I would change,” Mickelson said.
Other than the direction his game is going at the moment.
Pinehurst is calling.
Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.