Friday 18 January 2019

Four-time major winner determined to banish his ‘nearly man’ tag at US Open

IF Phil Mickelson was asked to pick the one title in golf he wants more than any other, there would not be the slightest hesitation in his answer.

The United States Open is it and this Thursday – his 41st birthday – Mickelson will begin his 21st attempt to be crowned champion. “As a kid I dreamt of winning this tournament,” he has often said. But so far it has given him more heartache than any other.

The pain would be far worse, of course, if Mickelson had not lifted three Masters and one US PGA, but a record five second places – and one in particular – are just as vivid memories as those triumphs. WORRY The one in particular was at Winged Foot five years ago. Coming into the event on the back of victories at the US PGA the previous season and Augusta that April, the chance was there to make it three majors in a row.

And, as will be the case at Congressional near Washington this week, he did not have Tiger Woods to worry about. Not because Woods was not playing, but because his father had just died and two six-over-par rounds of 76 meant Woods missed the cut for the first time in a major as a pro. Mickelson, ranked second in the world to Woods at the time, needed a closing par once Colin Montgomerie had double-bogeyed the last but, in the space of 10 minutes he fervently wishes he could have again, he also took six after carving his drive. Almost unbelievably, Geoff Ogilvy was left as the winner.

“I still am in shock that I did that – I am such an idiot,” said the lefthander at the time. “This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won. I had it in my grasp and just let it go. This one is going to take a little while to get over.” Previously Mickelson had been beaten in 1999 when Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final green; in 2002 when Woods won by three; and in 2004 when a double bogey at the 17th led to him losing by two to Retief Goosen.

And since 2006 there has been one more runner-up finish – two years ago, when he admitted he had more important things on his mind than worrying about the bogeys at the 15th and 17th that left him two behind Lucas Glover. Mickelson was to take a break from the game to care for wife Amy after her diagnosis of breast cancer and he said: “I’m disappointed but I think it’s more in perspective for me because I feel different this time.”

He missed the Open at Turnberry a month later and was way out of contention at that season’s US PGA, but his third Masters came last year and being able to share it with his wife made it extra special. With treatment seemingly going well not only for his wife, but also his own psoriatic arthritis, the US Open remains top of his wish list. “It’s a challenge for me because it’s difficult off the tee,” he said. “It’s not as easy to get up and down around the greens.

“I don’t talk as much during a US Open. It’s such a grind and you’re so worried about what you’re doing that it’s difficult to think about other stuff.” The biggest concern has been his form. Mickelson won the week before the Masters, but managed only 27th place there and ninth is his best in three starts since.

It is no surprise, though, to see him placed third in the betting just behind England’s Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. They are the game’s current top two on the rankings – but neither has a major yet. With no Woods in the field, Mickelson’s four is the highest tally of anybody.

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