When Phil Mickelson sets out for his 24th U.S. Open just before 8 a.m. on Thursday it will arguably be the most pressure packed major championship since Tiger Woods put the finishing touches on the Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters.
Much of the pressure is self-inflicted, while other elements remain shrouded in the secrecy of a federal investigation. The byproduct, however, will be the most intense week of the 43-year-old’s life.
Within moments of winning the Open Championship last July, Mickelson was the first to arrive at the grand crossroads that will make this week’s national championship so scrutinized.
“If I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that's the sign of the complete great player,” he said at Muirfield. “I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me. There’s five players that have done that. Those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.”
Since that sunny afternoon on the Scottish coast there has been no hedging, no backtracking, no attempt to cast this week’s championship as anything other than a historic opportunity.
Much of Mickelson’s motivation to go head-to-head with his Grand Slam ambitions were born at Muirfield, where he ended nearly two decades of frustration with a closing 66 that Lefty dubbed the greatest round he’d ever played.
“Ever since he won last year at Muirfield the (career) Grand Slam became an option, something he probably thought he couldn’t do,” said Mickelson’s swing coach Butch Harmon. “Once we bought into how we wanted him to play, he’s not afraid to talk about it.”
If Woods’ career has been largely defined by unquestionable consistency, Mickelson’s has been myriad peaks and valleys. For every Muirfield there has been a Merion, every Augusta National offset by a Winged Foot.