PINEHURST, N.C. — Think of a golf tournament as a mile race. Each round is a lap. You don’t have to lead the first day or first two or three days, but you’d better stay close, better not fall too far off the pace. The key is to stay within striking distance.
On the first day of the 2014 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson, carrying the largest burden—and drawing the largest crowds—did just that.
Lap one. An even-par 70, despite bogeys on two of the last four holes he played. The gallery was thrilled, and Mickelson was content.
“I’m never upset (with) anything off of par,” he said. “It’s usually a good score.”
A good score to put him in position for what’s ahead, when the No. 2 Course at Pinehurst will change a bit. Fairways likely will be allowed to run faster—if the forecasted thunderstorms stay clear—and greens will set up to be harder and slicker.
But that’s only the physical part. So much of a major championship is mental, especially this U.S. Open for Mickelson. Especially any U.S. Open for Mickelson.
If he doesn’t get one, Phil, already in the Golf Hall of Fame, still will be acknowledged as one of best golfers ever, which is no small achievement. Ah, but if he wins an Open, and he’s finished second a record six times, he becomes one of only five men to take each of the four majors: Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
That’s on his mind. That’s on everyone’s mind.
He’s back at Pinehurst, where in 1999, by a single shot to Payne Stewart, he missed winning. That was the first of Mickelson’s half-dozen runner-up placings. He knows what it would be to grab this particular Open. The crowd Thursday was well aware of its meaning, too.
When told that on each putt people in the crowd were trying to will the ball into cup, Mickelson said, “If they’re not, I certainly am trying to will it. I love it. I’m appreciative of the support.”
He was nicknamed Philly the Mick in 2004 when the Open was held at Shinnecock Hills, far out on Long Island. It was there he had a second-place result for a third time. It was there he was embraced loudly and enthusiastically.
Tiger Woods may be The Man in golf, but Tiger, recovering from back surgery, isn’t entered in this 114th Open. And even with figures such as Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson, who have their own following, Mickelson is the willing star in residence.
Mickelson will be 44 on Monday. Time is of the essence.
“This is a special tournament, a tournament that means a lot to me," Mickelson said. "I don’t know if it will be this week or next year or the year after that. I do still have 100 percent confidence that I’ll be able to break through and get one.
“I do feel, though, that this tournament gives me a great chance on this golf course, because I don’t feel like I have to be perfect. I can hit a ridiculously bad iron shot like I did on two and still get it up and down.”
That’s because the U.S. Golf Association, which administers the Open, for the first time in more than half a century decided to do away with tall rough into which wayward shots disappear and replace it at Pinehurst with sandy waste areas. They give golfers troubles, but they also give them the opportunity to escape.
Mickelson can be wild with his tee shots. On Tuesday, in his pre-tournament media session, he spoke of the joys of being allowed to recover from his errant shots.
Thursday, Mickelson’s morning began with a New York Times recalibration of an earlier story that he was being sought out for questionable investments. “Golfer Mickelson’s Role Said to Be Overstated in Insider Inquiry,” was the headline:
Although Mr. (Carl) Icahn and Mr. (William) Walters remain under investigation over Clorox, the F.B.I. and the Securities and Exchange Commission have found no evidence that Mr. Mickelson traded Clorox shares. The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to The Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.
When in his post-round interview Mickelson was asked what he could say about the story, he responded, “Not really anything. But I’ll continue to say I haven’t done anything wrong. I do have a lot to say, but I’ll say it at the right time.”
With the controversy from that story seemingly behind him, this would be the perfect time to open the Open door. A venue he likes. A tournament he wants dearly.
“You never know,” he said when someone repeated the Mickelson mantra that he plays well when least expected. “But this is a course where I get a similar feeling that I get at Augusta where I don’t have to be perfect.”
Mickelson has won the Masters there three times.
“I can miss shots and still get up and down,” he explained. “I always have a chance.”
In the 2014 Open, that chance will exist only three more days.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.