Mickelson primed for career-defining victory

LA JOLLA, Calif. – Of the more than 100 golfers on the PGA Tour, few, if any, have played at Torrey Pines Golf Course more than Phil Mickelson.

The San Diego native essentially grew up on the course. In 1981, at age 11, he won the Junior World Golf Championships. In high school, he played the course hundreds of times as the star of the University High golf team.

All of that experience, that hard-earned, intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of every hole at Torrey Pines, paid off when Mickelson turned pro. In 1993, his first full season on tour following a decorated career at Arizona State, he won the Buick Invitational by an eye-popping margin of seven strokes. After a couple of near misses, he added two more Buick titles in 2000-01, shooting a combined 37 under par.

So imagine the mixed feelings Mickelson experienced when the South Course was renovated in 2001. On one hand was the elation of realizing that the Rees Jones-engineered makeover would allow Torrey Pines to be considered as a U.S. Open site (the tournament was awarded to the course the following year). On the other hand was the disappointment of realizing that, when it came to his mastery of the course, he’d basically be starting from scratch.

“When the South was redesigned,” Mickelson said, “I lost all that local knowledge and knowing which way every putt broke that I had gained from playing countless high school matches here.”

Since the redesign, Tiger Woods has stolen ownership of the South Course from Mickelson, bagging five titles at Torrey Pines to his top rival’s zero.

Starting Thursday morning, when the world’s top two golfers are paired together in the first round of the U.S. Open, Mickelson has a chance to reclaim his home course – and possibly achieve the pinnacle of a prosperous career.

“This is a tournament I know and believe I can win,” he said. “I think that this golf course gives me the best opportunity available to do that. Winning this tournament would be something that would help define my career.”

For years, the 37-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident seemed destined to wear the unfortunate tag of “Best Player Never To Win A Major” for life. But he finally broke through at the Masters in 2004 and added two more in the next two years: the ’05 PGA Championship and another Masters in ’06.

The U.S. Open, however, remains a bugaboo. His notorious collapse at Winged Foot two years ago – leading by a stroke over Geoff Ogilvy on the 72nd hole, he made bone-headed decisions on his first two shots en route to a disastrous double bogey – resulted in his fourth second-place finish, tying the Open record shared by legends Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus.

“I love (this championship),” Mickelson said. “I just haven’t gotten the love back.”

He’ll certainly feel the love this weekend – if not from a golf course he has repeatedly called one of the hardest in the world since the redesign, then from a gallery that adores his affable, everyman persona and his go-for-broke approach to golf.

“He’s won 34 times being aggressive. He’s lost tournaments being aggressive,” said Pete Coe, the head pro at La Jolla Country Club and a close friend of Mickelson’s since his high school days. “But that’s what makes him so popular, is his style of play. Phil is not a conservative player. He has so much confidence in his ability. Give the guy a lot of credit – he’s not afraid to take that risk.”

Part of Mickelson’s difficulty at Torrey Pines has been learning to manage risk. Jones’ addition of more than 500 yards of length transformed the course from one where birdie opportunities are plentiful to one where players must carefully pick their spots. Of course, the word “careful” hasn’t been in Mickelson’s dictionary until recently.

“Changing the mindset from attack to playing for par has been the biggest challenge for me,” he said. “But as soon as I’ve been able to do that, I’ve played this course a lot better.”

Mickelson has long been considered an inconsistent driver and an erratic putter who makes up for any deficiencies with a spectacular short game. He has been working hard, though, to remedy those weak spots by hiring swing coach Butch Harmon and short game coach Dave Pelz. Because Mickelson is so good from the fairway to the green, Pelz has focused much of his attention on putting, particularly on the South Course greens that are so different from how Mickelson remembers them as a young pro.

“I spent a lot of time with Pelz on these greens,” Mickelson said. ” … I should have done this five years ago when I knew the Open was going to be here.”

Said Pelz, an Austin, Texas, resident who began working with Mickelson in 2003: “I’m very impressed by how hard he works. He’s improved measurably around the greens and in putting. He’s really trying to be as good as he can be. A lot of people simply give lip service to that.”

Since winning at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, in late May and finishing in a tie for 20th at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, Mickelson has laid low, recovering from a bout of food poisoning and trying to stay under the media radar. It’s all part of his plan to treat this U.S. Open like any other tournament, even though it’s a long-awaited major championship on his home course.

“It’s a big deal. The stakes go up when it’s your hometown,” said Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother and the men’s golf coach at the University of San Diego. “But Phil wants to win a U.S. Open whether at Torrey Pines or Oakmont or anywhere.

“I don’t think pressure ever has been something he’s too concerned about. Having the Open in his backyard won’t affect his play.”