Phil Mickelson has four major championships and 39 PGA Tour victories but the big lefty has never won a U.S. Open. A handful of second-place finishes, according to ESPN’s Curtis Strange, is just not good enough.
Very disappointing. “If I was Phil Mickelson, I would look at five runner-ups as very, very disappointing,” two-time U.S. Open winner Strange said Thursday. “When you have his amount of talent and his ability and his record, you know, not winning when you have a chance to win is disappointing. And there is no way else to look at it.”
Mickelson, who finished second at an Open for the fifth time in 2009, likely views things a bit differently.
“I’ve played some of my better golf in the U.S. Open,” he told reporters following his T13 finish at last week’s Memorial Tournament. “I just need a few breaks here and there, or maybe a few less mistakes here or there, to be able to come out on top.”
The quick greens and punishing rough that are signatures of U.S. Open courses tend to favor consistent, conservative play more than Phil The Thrill’s “flamboyant, aggressive, swashbuckling” approach, noted Andy North, Strange’s partner in the ESPN booth. Wayward shots will find graduated cuts of fescue from some four to five inches tall that will punish golfers who can’t find the fairway, according to Michael Giuffre, director of course management at Congressional Country Club, site of next week’s Open.
Despite that, Mickelson has the distance and lofty trajectory on his moon shots to tame the length and elevated greens of Congressional.
“It’s a golf course where if you have length, that’s a positive. Phil does,” North said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “If you hit the ball way up in the air because of the elevated greens, that’s a positive for Phil.”
Mickelson’s fortunes will probably rest with his flat stick. “If he has a good week putting,” observed North, who also owns two U.S. Open titles, “I think Congressional’s a great venue for him to win on.”
With just 24 putts in his final round at The Memorial, Mickelson believed he was ready for whatever Congressional had to offer.
“I putted pretty good today,” Mickelson said after posting a 5-under 67 last Sunday. “It’s really getting a good feel on the greens…getting good speed….My speed from outside of six to 35 feet, the putts you’ve really got to make to get a good round going, was off a little bit the first few days.
“Today even the ones that missed were rolling about a foot and a half by, which is about the speed I’m looking for,” he added.
Mickelson has to hope his short shots continue to drop; another second-place finish would only bolster Strange’s criticism.
“He’s had opportunities, and he just hasn’t come through,” Strange said. “I think he certainly would look at it as a black eye right now. I guess you can say it like that, just disappointing.”
A few more tidbits from the Strange/North presser:
Stricker’s the one. Both analysts picked Steve Stricker, fresh off his win at The Memorial, as next week’s favorite.
“You’d be hard [pressed] to pick two or three guys you’d rather make a five- or six-footer than Steve Stricker,” said North, like Stricker, a Cheesehead from Wisconsin. “He’s not one of the bombers anymore, but he hits it plenty long….I think he’s got a great chance.”
Strange agreed. “He is playing well. His form is excellent,” he said. “He’s in that time in his career where it’s time to get it done….I think down deep he’s very, very confident….”
The strength of Stricker’s game is inside 100 yards, a distance from which “he might be the best on tour,” Strange said. “I very much think he’s one of the heavy favorites.”
Major pressure. There’s no substitute for experience if you’re taking a 54-hole lead into Major Championship Sunday. Just ask Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson, who blew leads in the final rounds of the 2011 Masters and 2010 PGA Championship, respectively.
McIlroy’s total meltdown Sunday at Augusta and Johnson’s notorious bunker gaffe at Whistling Straits should serve each golfer well, the broadcasters averred.
“It’s hard to put into words the…nerves, anxiousness, sleeplessness, pressure,” said Strange. “If these players are back in contention Sunday afternoon, they’ll handle it much, much better. Being inexperienced…and just never having to deal with this, you have no idea. It’s like an out‑of‑body experience.”
North believes you must hunger for frontrunner status heading into a major’s final round. “You have to just relish the fact that your stomach is upside down and you didn’t sleep very well,” he said.
There’s no way to prepare your psyche for the stress of having a target on your back, both commentators noted. “It comes down to how mentally tough a player is,” North said. “Are you mentally tough enough to just absolutely embrace how bad you feel and how nervous you are and try to turn that into a positive versus letting it destroy you?”
Strange recalled his embarrassment after coughing up his first opportunity to win on tour in Hartford, Conn., in 1978. “I felt like I was stripped naked out there,” he said. “You want to go cry somewhere.”
Dark horse. Nick Watney, who failed to hold onto his 54-hole advantage at last month’s Players Championship, is one of the new breed of young golfers who could end up as the Open’s surprise winner.
“[Watney’s] had a terrific year and is on the edge of becoming a great player,” said North.
His wedge work could help get the 30-year-old Californian to the winner’s circle Sunday. “Nick has worked unbelievably hard on his short game,” said Strange. “is short game is so solid, great chipper and pitcher of the golf ball now, where that was a weakness of his three years ago.”
No Mr. Popularity. Look for the fan-friendly guy who’s smiling and loping down the fairway next week and you’ll see a loser.
“Playing in a U.S. Open, if you’re having fun, there is something wrong with you,” North stated. “It is the most brutal test of all tests.
“I had to grind and grind and grind to play well, and the U.S. Open is even more so,” he continued. Smiling and waving at all the spectators “is not what the U.S. Open is about.”
Count Strange among those who never yucked it up inside the ropes. “If this was a smiling contest, I wouldn’t be entered,” he said.
“Lee Trevino and any major champion that was bubbly and fun and laughed on a golf course during the major, they were very much the exception,” Strange said. “These guys are out there to make history for themselves and to pay the bills and be the best they can be. It’s not all fun and games sometimes.”
Another youngster who could have a chance at Congressional — if he wins this week — is New England’s Keegan Bradley. Read how Bradley put himself in contention during the first round of the St. Jude Classic.