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Mickelson Relishes Third Opportunity at Shinnecock

June 12, 2018 Southampton, N.Y. By Dave Shedloski
Two of Phil Mickelson's 10 top-10 U.S. Open finishes have come at Shinnecock Hills, includng a runner-up showing in 2004. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Phil Mickelson has unfinished business this week at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in the 118th U.S. Open.

This assertion is both accurate and incomplete.

“So, I can say that a few times in this tournament,” said Mickelson on Tuesday. Actually, he could say this more than just a few times. Six times in this championship Mickelson has finished second, most recently in 2013 at Merion. Ten times he has finished in the top 10.

Two of the 10 have come at Shinnecock, where he finished tied for fourth in the 1995 championship and second in 2004. In each, he knows exactly where he stumbled. Had he played the par-5 16th hole in even par instead of 6 over par in 1995, he would have finished two strokes ahead of eventual winner Corey Pavin. And had he not dumped a 7-iron in the left bunker at the par-3 17th and three-putted for double bogey in ’04, he’d have at least tied Retief Goosen and forced an 18-hole playoff. Instead, Goosen won his second U.S. Open title.

Winner of five major championships and needing the U.S. Open to become only the sixth player to win the career grand slam, Mickelson isn’t thinking about lost chances. He’s looking ahead to this week’s opportunity to get the job done. He has said more than once that Shinnecock is a course he loves. And he strongly approves of this year’s setup, too.

“This year is a great chance for me, first of all because I am playing well,” said Mickelson, who earlier this year won the WGC-Mexico Championship for his 43rd career PGA Tour title and broke a victory drought of nearly five years. “Second, I love the setup. I think it’s one of the best setups I’ve ever seen. The fairways are a fair width. They’re as wide as I’ve ever seen them.

“The chipping and short game around the greens are going to be a huge factor this week,” he added. “The challenge of the greens being extended and all the contours will continue to take balls further from the hole. You end up in fairway and have a shot, albeit a difficult one. And I feel like your short game’s going to be challenged. Putting will be challenged, as well as ball-striking, irons, driver. I feel as though the luck of a course has been taken out as much as possible to where skill is the primary factor.”

Mickelson turns 48 on Saturday, and only Julius Boros has won a major championship at that age, the 1968 PGA Championship. It’s just one more obstacle to overcome for the talented left-hander, who is making his 27th appearance in the national open. Which he doesn’t seem to mind, if you ask him.

“I love the challenge. I mean, I really love the challenge, and I love that I have another opportunity to try and complete the career grand slam,” he said.

Tiger Woods, the three-time U.S. Open champion, doesn’t discount the chances of his longtime rival and fellow California native joining him in the career grand slam club with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.

“Phil's won umpteen tournaments all around the world, and he's finished second in this event six times. Of all the events, you would think that this would be the one that he would have the least chance to win because of the way he's driven it for most of his career,” said Woods, who is playing in his first U.S. Open since 2015 after being sidelined with a back injury. “But that short game of his is off the charts. And, you know, a U.S. Open is about wedging it. It really is. I mean, you can spray it a little bit here and there, but you've got to be able to get it up and down from 100 yards. We're all going to face it. And he's been one of the best of all time at doing that.”

Mickelson looks on his six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open with a bit more appreciation than he once did. He’s willing to cut himself a little slack. “I know that I can play well in the championship,” he said. “I know I have the game to win one.”

But the window of opportunity is nearly shut. Mickelson recognizes that excellent opportunities await not only this year, but in 2019 at Pebble Beach, where he has won four times on the PGA Tour. And in 2020 the championship returns to Winged Foot, where Mickelson’s 72nd hole double bogey opened the door for Geoff Ogilvy. That’s another venue that owes him – if such a thing really exists.

“If I don’t win it in the next two-three years, with the courses we’re playing, then I have to think it’s not going to happen,” he admitted.

“I definitely would feel like my career is incomplete.”

Which is accurate.

Dave Shedloski is a Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.