The window remains open for Lefty

BETHESDA, Md. – The Last American climbed the hills of Congressional Country Club in a white shirt and pastel linen pants. Things have been good for Phil Mickelson in these final days before he turns 41. He can feel it in a swing that has needed little tinkering. He can see it in the putts that finally rolled true two weeks ago at the Memorial.

Yes, he said, smiling at yet another television reporter, “I really believe I can win this tournament.”

The frequent narrative about the last American to win a major – Lefty captured the 2010 Masters – is often about the things he doesn’t win. For years, all everyone talked about was how he couldn’t win a major, and then he won the Masters in 2004 and won it again and again. But now it seems that isn’t enough, that somehow his career isn’t complete unless he wins a U.S. Open. And with Tiger Woods gone for what could be a significant period, the idea is that this weekend, here, is finally his time.

Which is why he spent much of the last few days walking around Congressional saying again and again: “I think I can win this tournament.”

Woods is gone but he always lurks near, ready to leap from the shadows. Mickelson never won many battles with Woods. Few have. Maybe that’s why Woods’ name keeps coming up this week, almost as a qualifier, signaling freedom for Mickelson to have his victory at last. With the 14-time major winner out of the way, won’t that make things easier?

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Mickelson smiled. It’s a delicate question. Yes, Woods’ absence makes for a psychological advantage. It removes an impediment no matter how poorly Woods had been playing before these latest injuries. But it also leaves a wide-open tournament, one that seems less predictable and less safe. Woods, he said, pushed him the way no one else did, pulling out his best game even if the result was another dispiriting defeat.

A victory by Phil Mickelson this week at Congressional would be one of the most popular in the history of the U.S. Open.
(Getty Images)

“The challenge now is, without him playing his best or even competing like he’s not this week, is pushing myself to achieve a level of play that is there without him forcing me to do so,” Mickelson said. “So in that sense it might be a little difficult.”

It was perhaps as honest a comment as you might hear from an athlete. Most would never let similar words leave their mouths. The natural assumption would be to believe the fact that this is the U.S. Open would be enough to make Mickelson play his best, but here he was admitting that he would almost have to summon the ghost of his fiercest rival to reach that height.

He’s always come across as more complicated than Woods, who openly wore his single-minded zeal, burying any hint of a personality in a carefully -crafted monotone. Woods would never admit he needed another player to push him to a higher level. He also wouldn’t stroll easily through the grounds, waiting patiently for television reporters to set up their interview before forcing him to smile and say hopefully enough: “I really believe I can win this tournament.”

But Mickelson has been through so much, little seems to bother him now. He started talking about the wretched hours between the end of a round Saturday and tee time Sunday during a tournament when winning is a possibility. This is where crazy thoughts creep into a golfer’s mind. It’s where Woods was always his best and where Mickelson has often struggled.

“Does holding the trophy go through your mind?” he said, “because if it does, you’re going to have a problem the next day.”

He’s learned the hard way.

The loss at Winged Foot in 2006 is Mickelson’s most spectacular U.S. Open defeat, but he also looks back to the 1995 Open at Shinnecock, one in which he finished tied for fourth, as the moment he first understood how to play this event. It was there where he stopped trying to reach the green on the par 5s, stopped trying to steal strokes on holes designed to trap the impatient golfer.

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The Last American was asked this week if he is staring at a closing window, having lost too many years to the shadow of Woods. It was a polite way of wondering if he is nearly too old to ever win this thing. The words slapped into him, stopping him for a moment.

“Not yet, no,” he said, his voice filled with surprise.

But this is how it is going to be for the Last American, the one for whom a nation turns to this week. On Wednesday, Mickelson will go to the White House. He is excited about this and talked happily about how his wife, Amy, is coming into town early for the occasion.

“(Obama) plays left-handed so it’s the biggest decision he’s done right,” said Mickelson, feigning his own left-handed swing.

Everybody chuckled. He stood under a tree near the tennis courts. A television network was putting together its interview, the camera guy finding focus, raising his hand, 3-2-1 ready. Here came the first question.

And Phil Mickelson smiled once more.

“I really believe I can win this tournament,” he said.

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Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jun 14, 2011