Phil Mickelson won the major championship few thought he ever would on Sunday. Now all he lacks is the title he most covets to complete a rare career Grand Slam.
In one of the shining moments of his stellar career, Mickelson birdied four of the final six holes Sunday at Muirfield to win his first career British Open. That was the fifth major triumph of his career and leaves the U.S. Open as the only missing major on Lefty’s lofty resume.
Without a doubt, joining that elite list would elevate Mickelson to new heights and secure his position as one of the best ever in golf’s long and storied history.
That’s a fact not lost on Mickelson.
“That’s the sign of the complete great player,” Mickelson said to The Telegraph in the wake of his Open Championship triumph. “I think there are five players who have done that and those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them in a different light.”
At 43 years old, Phil has plenty of time to win the U.S. Open, an event he has finished second in a record six times, including last month at Merion Golf Club after holding the 54-hole lead.
That said, Father Time can be a temperamental fellow, and it's likely Phil’s realistic window for winning the U.S. Open is four, maybe five, years.
Phil’s first pass at golf immortality will come at Pinehurst Resort's No. 2 Course next June. It will also be his best chance to accomplish the feat, considering the U.S. Open host courses that will follow the next four years.
Mickelson nearly won his first major championship at Pinehurst in 1999 in what was one of the most memorable U.S. Opens ever. The late, great Payne Stewart drained a long par putt on the 72nd hole to deny Lefty an 18-hole playoff the next day.
Some things are simply meant to be, and instead of competing in a playoff Monday, Mickelson celebrated the day with the birth of his first child alongside his wife, Amy.
Mickelson might have lost that championship, but because of the way he played and behaved in defeat, his love affair with golf’s public was cemented at Pinehurst.
Of the other U.S. Open venues Phil will challenge through 2018, only Shinnecock Hills can come close to providing such positive motivation and career meaning. In 2004, Mickelson finished second on the Long Island course behind first-time major winner Retief Goosen.
To be sure, his game at Shinnecock was on par with his Pinehurst performance.
The problem is, however, that Shinnecock won't host the U.S. Open until 2018. It’s doubtful Mickelson would relish having the already-growing career Slam talk hanging over him five years from now and just two years shy of turning 50 years old.
At the age of 45, Hale Irwin is the oldest golfer to ever win the U.S. Open; Raymond Floyd is second at 43 years of age.
That leaves three venues between 2014 and 2018 Mickelson either has either bad memories of or no memory at all.
Mickelson has never played a competitive round of golf on either layout, and while that doesn't mean he can’t win there, counting on it with any confidence is risky at best.
Between those championships, there's 2016 host Oakmont Country Club, the site of one of Mickelson’s worst-ever U.S. Open outings.
In 2007, Lefty missed the cut at Oakmont after finishing the first two rounds at 11 over, a rather weak effort that included a seven-over 77 in the second round. Granted, one poor performance nine years before wouldn't rule out Mickelson upon his return to the Pittsburgh-area course, but it doesn't inspire confidence either.
Considering all the options of Lefty’s five-year window to win a U.S. Open, Pinehurst absolutely is the best and most appropriate venue.
It's where Mickelson’s Open suffering first began. The Donald Ross layout is also where his reputation as a classy professional and competitor was created.
Where better, then, to see the pain fade to glory and his legacy cemented?
With its challenging green complexes and demands on accurate approach shots, Pinehurst is also suited to the Mickelson we watched win at Muirfield on Sunday.
Yes, he will have to drive the ball accurately to navigate the layout’s tree-lined fairways, but that’s true of the entire field.
It also doesn't hurt that Mickelson’s game is the best it’s ever been, his confidence is the strongest we've ever seen, and he’s never been in a better place mentally than he is right now. It’s no stretch to expect him to be in the same place when he arrives at Pinehurst less than a year from now.
That’s not to say Lefty’s play at Pinehurst next year will ultimately determine whether he achieves the career Slam.
We know Mickelson loves defying odds. Winning at an unknown venue such as Erin Hills or Chambers Bay wouldn't shock anyone. Neither would reversing a poor past performance at Oakmont or becoming the oldest golfer to win a U.S. Open at Shinnecock five years from now.
Considering we're talking about Lefty, any one of those scenarios is possible.
Yet that doesn't change the fact that Mickelson’s best chance to complete his major circle and ascend to golf greatness comes next June at Pinehurst Golf Club.