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Phil Mickelson Rewarded for Being a Good Dad with U.S. Open Lead

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COMMENTARY -- Instant karma got Phil Mickelson on Thursday at the 2013 U.S. Open. For the better.

Mickelson flew into the Philadelphia area early Thursday morning after taking a cross-country plane ride for the second time in three days to attend his daughter Amanda's eighth-grade graduation in California and to make his final preparations for the week ahead at Merion.

He rolled into the Ardmore, Pa., club at 5:37 a.m. ET, just about 90 minutes before his 7:11 a.m. tee time with Keegan Bradley and Steve Stricker. It was go time -- jet lag, lack of sleep and all.

After a three-putt bogey at No. 11, his first hole of the day, Mickelson steadied himself. Mickelson got back to square with a birdie at the short par-4 13th and didn't drop another shot the rest of the way en route to 3-under 67 and the lead after the first wave at Merion.

He even was gifted some nap time by Mother Nature, as a three-and-a-half-hour weather delay halted play starting at 8:36 a.m. ET.

But let's be clear: It's not like Lefty snagged a ride on a FedEx cargo jet, rolling around in the underbelly of the plane without a seat belt. He rode on a G-5 private jet. He took a nap, albeit not a long one.

But, still, Mickelson did the right thing with his means: He was there for his daughter.

Amanda Mickelson was a speaker at her middle-school graduation. That speech was the latest chapter in a parenting journey that began 14 years ago, and whose prologue was the most public part of the story.

It was 1999, and Phil Mickelson was battling Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No. 2 for his first major championship at the U.S. Open. His wife, Amy, was pregnant with the couple's first child, who turned out to be Amanda. Mickelson was carrying a beeper -- remember those? -- swearing that if it went off, he knew his next move: off the golf course and on a path directly to a delivery room to see his daughter born.

The beeper never went off. Phil didn't win the trophy. With a 20-foot putt on the 72nd hole, Stewart captured his legacy win. Amid the jubilation of the moment, Stewart went to Mickelson and shouted in his face, "You're going to be a father!" almost as though Stewart was happier about that than winning the national championship. Maybe Stewart was.

Amanda was born the next day, the first of three children for the Mickelsons. In the intervening time between that day and now, the family has been through a lot.

Nearly five years later, Dad won a major at the 2004 Masters, the first of three Augusta titles and four majors overall. However, the year before, Amy nearly died giving birth to the couple's third child, Evan. Maybe the stark reality of the fleeting nature of life made that back-nine comeback against Ernie Els seem so much easier. Later that summer, Mickelson nearly won his nemesis major, the Open Championship, before Todd Hamilton shocked the world.

Mickelson would then win two more majors, including the '05 PGA Championship and '06 Masters. The Mickel-slam was one bad drive at Winged Foot away from maybe being as real as the Tiger Slam. The self-described idiotic mistake may have put Mickelson's professional career on another course, but three years later, life cruelly realigned his priorities.

Not only was Amy diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, but so was Mickelson's mother just six weeks later. Thankfully, both survived. Mickelson did his best to turn the page professionally in April 2010, capturing his fourth major in an emotional win at the Masters.

Since then, he's gone majorless, despite a shooting-star chance at the 2011 Open Championship and a run at the '12 Masters. Maybe that's about to change.

The 3-under tally Mickelson posted on Thursday at Merion was his lowest opening U.S. Open round against par since, you guessed it, that week at Pinehurst 14 years ago.

Maybe that 67 wasn't instant karma after all. Maybe it's payback from an act 14 years ago.

Either way, it's about time for Mickelson to win a U.S. Open. He has been runner-up in this championship a record five times. The window is closing on the period where he can reasonably expect to contend for many more of these grueling examinations. He turns 43 on Sunday.

An Open breakthrough on his birthday and Father's Day might seem cheesier than one of Philly's best steak sandwiches, but for a guy who has spent as much time in the air as he has this week, it'd be a great round trip.

Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.

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