UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. (AP) — Phil Mickelson loped off the first tee at Chambers Bay early Tuesday, the morning sun still hidden within a slate-gray sky, when two women with snow-white hair squealed in delight.
“Oh, there he is!” one said to the other, just out of his earshot. “He’s so close!”
Oh, so close.
What better way to describe Mickelson and the U.S. Open?
Always the sentimental favorite this time of year, the five-time major winner arrived at the links-style course hard against the Puget Sound this week still searching for his first win in his national championship. Mickelson has finished second on six occasions, a record that is nearly as mystifying as it is motivating, and one that he carries with him wherever he goes.
Even down the first fairway at Chambers Bay.
“Your time, Phil!” another fan yelled out from the gallery.
“This is your year!” yet another hollered from beside the first green.
“I’ve always been somebody that got motivated by failure, that worked harder because of it,” Mickelson explained later, after wrapping up his practice round. “Some people get discouraged by that and it almost pushes them away, but for me, it’s always been a motivator.”
It has been 16 years since the first one, a runner-up finish to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No. 2, which remains most memorable for the fact that Mickelson dutifully carried along a pager so his wife, Amy, could get in touch if she went into labor with their first child.
Some have not been all that close — Tiger Woods besting Mickelson by three to win the 2002 championship, and Lucas Glover beating him by two in 2009, both at Bethpage Black. Others have been downright heartbreaking, as if Mickelson was the leading man in a Shakespearean tragedy.
There was his late double-bogey at Shinnecock in 2004 that allowed Retief Goosen to win his second championship. And another double-bogey on the final hole two years later at Winged Foot — when all Mickelson needed was a par — that allowed Geoff Ogilvy to win. And what Mickelson would call his “best chance of all of them,” two years ago at Merion, when he led each of the first three rounds before fading on Sunday and allowing Justin Rose to capture the title.
That last one still stings, even on the eve of another try.
“It was a tournament I feel I should have won,” Mickelson said. “I was playing well enough to win. A couple mistakes late in the tournament ended up costing me.”
Mickelson admits that he has no idea whether he’s playing well enough to complete the career grand slam this week. He’s in the midst of another overhaul of his physique and his game, changes that have been slow to take hold. As a result, he hasn’t lifted a trophy since the Claret Jug at the British Open two years ago.
“I’ve gone through a period these last couple years where I haven’t played my best golf, and I feel like I’m on the upswing,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m there or not. This week will be a good test of how far I’ve come.”
There are reasons for optimism: Mickelson tied for third at the St. Jude Classic last week, shooting his best round of the season in the final round. And as he made his way around Chambers Bay, it became apparent the long par-4s, generous fairways and quirky bounces suit his game.
Powerful. Creative. Occasionally wild.
“This is a great opportunity for him,” said Rickie Fowler, who played alongside him in the practice round, “but I don’t look at it like his career is by any means coming to an end any time soon. He still has plenty of power. He still has all the shots in the bag.”
Mickelson demonstrated that more than once on Tuesday.
On the long, uphill par-4 fourth, he found the big fairway bunker off the tee, only to knock it within 10 feet. On the par-3 ninth, he hit close enough for a kick-in birdie — a marvelous shot to reward the fans who’d been serenading him on his 45th birthday.
“He’s under the radar, not many people talk about him. Apparently he’s on his back nine in his career and all those things,” defending champion Martin Kaymer said. “But I played with Phil a few times in the past and knowing how aggressive he can play and how good and how creative he is on golf courses, I think he will have a good chance.”