By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Of all the storylines swirling ahead of next week's U.S. Open, where Tiger Woods is a notable absentee as he recovers from back surgery, none is more compelling than Phil Mickelson's bid to win the tournament for the first time.
Mickelson has been a runner-up at the U.S. Open a record six times, most recently last year when he finished two shots behind England's Justin Rose at Merion, and he is yearning for the chance to complete a career grand slam of the four majors.
Eleven months ago, the American clinched the one major which he had always felt was the most difficult for him to win, the British Open, with a brilliant closing round of 66 at Muirfield and his sights are now set firmly set on Pinehurst next week.
"There's such a difference in the way I view the few major champions that have won all four," left-hander Mickelson, 43, said while preparing for the U.S. Open, which will be played from June 12-15 at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina.
"And I'm fortunate and I'm honored to be part of that long list of great players that have won three of the four.
"That's great. But I would look at my career, which is all I care about, in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one."
Mickelson, who finished second on Pinehurst's fabled No. 2 Course when the U.S. Open was first held there in 1999, has always been brutally honest about the heartache he has suffered following his multiple near-misses at the event.
"If you try to deny it and try to act like it doesn't hurt and that it's no big deal, well, you're just lying to yourself," he said. "I had such a down moment after losing at Merion. It stung, and you just do what you have to get over it.
"And I was able to come to the conclusion that I'm playing really good golf and don't let it affect the potential outcome of some of the upcoming events.
"That's what really got me to refocus on the future and the upcoming majors and at the British (Open)," said Mickelson, referring to his three-shot victory at Muirfield which came just one month after his bitter disappointment at Merion.
Asked if he felt any added pressure going into the U.S. Open at a venue where he has previously come agonizingly close, the five-times major winner replied: "I don't. Some people view it as though he's come close and he's never done it.
"I see it as though I've finished second six times in this event, I played some of my best golf in this event, and that I should have an opportunity, and more than one opportunity, to close one out here in the future."
Mickelson will certainly be challenged at Pinehurst as he has not been at his best on the 2013-14 PGA Tour, failing to record a single top-10 finish and missing the cut at the Masters and Players Championship in his last four starts.
He has also been distracted in recent weeks after being implicated in a federal probe into possible insider trading involving him, billionaire investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler William Walters.
While Mickelson focuses on that elusive first U.S. Open win, three-times champion Woods will be on the sidelines next week as he continues to recover from treatment for a pinched nerve in his back that had troubled him for months.
Woods, who has been stalled on his career tally of 14 major wins since his playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, has not played competitive golf since late March and has not set a timetable for his return.
However, the rest of the game's top players will gather in Pinehurst next week when Australian world number one Adam Scott, second-ranked Swede Henrik Stenson and third-ranked American Bubba Watson, the Masters champion, are among the favorites.
Other likely contenders include Americans Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, 2011 champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, Australian Jason Day, Spaniard Sergio Garcia and fast-rising Japanese talent Hideki Matsuyama.
Traditionally, U.S. Opens have placed a premium on accuracy off the tee, due to narrow fairways flanked by thick rough, and the ability to scramble pars on lightning-fast greens.
Pinehurst next week, however, will be very different with the No. 2 Course offering up wide fairways and no rough after a 2011 renovation by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw restored the layout to the initial specifications of designer Donald Ross.
The native sandy areas so prevalent at Pinehurst during the 1930s and 1940s are now back, though 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland fears that the par-70 layout will favor the power hitters.
"Pinehurst is an iron-shot golf course, a second-shot golf course," McDowell told Reuters about a fabled venue which is renowned for its inverted-saucer greens.
"I am just worried that this year's U.S. Open, with no rough, is going to give the bombers a little too much space, that's my only concern."
Rose will be back to defend the title he won so impressively last year when he closed with a level-par 70 in difficult scoring conditions at Merion to become the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)