Phil Mickelson is one of the favorites to win the U.S. Open, and he is pleased with the setup at Pinehurst No. 2, “I really believe that this week is testing a player’s entire game because it forces you to make decisions, 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. There’s no luck involved with the hack-it-out rough that sometimes we have around the greens. It’s just a wonderful test that is, I think, the best test I’ve seen to identify the best player.”
Mickelson will need to get his mind in the right place because he doesn’t have any top-10s this season. For anyone else, that would be a huge negative, but Mickelson is known to show up at the U.S. Open with six career runner-up finishes.
Lefty’s impressive record of runner-ups started at the ’99 Open when Payne Stewart made an 18-foot par putt on the 72nd hole for the win. Phil said he has learned from his near misses, “I think the biggest thing for me is that I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship and I believe that I’ll have more opportunities. When I do, hopefully the experience that I’ve had in the past will allow me to handle it better in the future.” He added, “But this place here specifically, obviously I have a lot of very fond emotional memories, from the ’99 experience with Payne Stewart and coming so close and now my daughter who is going to be 15 and we just started teaching her to drive and it’s just amazing how much time has gone by to hear that this is my 24th U.S. Open? I don’t feel that old. I guess I look it, but I don’t feel it. Pinehurst here has so many great memories for me, even though it’s not a place that I have won a national championship, I’m certainly trying to change that this week.”
The five-time major champion also set a realistic tone in the press conference when he answered a question about his putting, “Well, [Johnny Miller’s] absolutely right, you can’t win any golf tournament putting the way I’ve been putting. I should have won that last week by eight shots if I putted worth — decent. And he’s absolutely right. Now I’ve had a great stretch like last year and a half of putting great and this year it’s been just off a little bit. I saw [Dave] Stockton this morning, and really the reason why I went to the claw is that I just have been a little bit too poppy, if you will, I’ve been popping at it. And not making a long kind of smooth, brush stroke. When I take the bottom hand off it allows me to do that. Ultimately, I’ll go back to a regular grip but for now, probably the coming weeks that helps me get the feel and flow back. What I should have done is practice the last few weeks with it and then gone to regular grip this week, but here we are. But what it really is it helps about the short putts. Three to six, seven feet, I’m much more solid with taking the bottom hand off and just kind of lightly pushing the putter through.”
Today, Mickelson played a practice round with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas. He said he enjoyed hanging around the young guys as well as watching Spieth’s creative shot making abilities, “Jordan Spieth and you’ll get to know Justin Thomas soon enough, are quality, quality guys. I mean they’re just fun to be around and Rickie Fowler’s the same way. I love being around him. They’re just really quality guys. They’re funny, they’re easy to be around, but what it does for me is it allows me to see what’s coming up, and it pushes me to work harder. Seeing the talent and the shot making that Jordan has is exciting. That’s his strength is his ability to create shots. He has every shot you could want to hit. Every shot with an iron. And he’s not afraid to use it in competition to get back some of those pins. His short game is exceptional. Watching him hit shots is fun. It pushes me to do the same thing, to keep my creativity, to get the ball back to some of those pins and hit the shot necessary. It’s fun to watch. Rickie and Justin are just great to be around. We had a fun day.”
Having fun before the start of competition should help Mickelson relax, and focus on preparing for the championship. He believes the course setup this week provides him with his best chance to win a U.S. Open, “I’m up front with the fact that I would love to do it here at Pinehurst, but I’m not going to put that pressure on me and say that this is the only week or only opportunity. It’s probably the best opportunity because the golf course is so short-game oriented, because [the] greens are so repellant, and the shots around the greens play a premium amongst all the Open venues that we have had. But I don’t want to put the pressure on that this is the only week that I’ll have a chance. I think that I’ll have a number of great opportunities in the future years, but this is certainly as good a chance as I’ll have.”
More interview highlights:
Although short-game is key, the driver is very important, “Drove it really well today. I feel good with the driver. I feel like that’s going to be the club that could kind of make or break my week this week.”
On Phil’s unpredictability, “I’ve done some crazy stuff, but one of the dumbest things I’ve done, which actually never came back to bite me, was in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage I changed irons after the first round. And Bones, different lofts on the irons. And Bones and I had a heck of a time for the next 54 holes trying to club. But, you know, you’ve got to take some risks sometimes. I’ve won Majors with two drivers, with one driver, and with no drivers. I’ve also lost some tournaments because of this. You have to be willing to take risks and be accountable.”
Mickelson’s patience has led to success at the majors, “But I’ve also wanted the Masters and my first major awfully bad. I also wanted a British Open awfully bad. You’re able to just kind of get [in] control of your thoughts…and be patient with it. I think that this is a week that I’ve been looking forward to and it would mean a lot to me, but if I get ahead of myself, I won’t have a chance.”
Phil knows he plays well when he is under the radar, “The flip side is that I tend to do well when it’s least expected.”
Mickelson does not have the luxury of low expectations this week, so it will be interesting to see how well he performs at a venue he believes provides him with his best opportunity to win a U.S. Open.
–Bernie D’Amato (@bdamato711)