COMMENTARY | For Phil Mickelson, the US Open has always been the one that got away.
Finishing runner-up in his national championship five times, more than anyone else in history, the US Open is the only stateside major that Mickelson has yet to conquer.
His close calls at the tournament are well documented beginning with the 1999 Open in which the late Payne Stewart holed a 15-footer to top Mickelson on the 72nd hole. He would go on to finish second again in 2002 at Bethpage, in 2004 at Shinnecock, infamously in 2006 at Winged Foot and most recently, in 2009, again at Bethpage.
Contrary to popular belief, the stringent test of accuracy posed by the US Open has not had much of an adverse effect on the free-swinging Mickelson. Aside from those five runner-ups, Mickelson has finished in the top-10 three other times as well.
A balky putter cost Mickelson the championship in 2004 when he three-putted from five feet to double-bogey the 71st hole, giving Retief Goosen the opening he needed and again in 2009 when he missed key putts on holes 14, 15, 16 and 17 in the final round, leaving an opening for Lucas Glover.
Course management has cooked Mickelson's goose in the past as well, most notably at Winged Foot in 2006 when he inexplicably pulled a driver on the last hole of the championship despite holding a one-stroke lead. Mickelson would go on to blow his tee shot into the merchandise tents and catch an unfavorable "fried egg" lie in the greenside bunker. He made double-bogey, missing out on a playoff with eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy by a shot.
All of that is to say if Mickelson could have kept his bearings about him coming down the stretch, he could have won at least two US Opens already.
So, what should make this year any different?
For one, Mickelson is clearly peaking coming into a rain-drenched Merion that doesn't stretch over 7,000 yards. Shooting weekend rounds of 67-65-67 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week, Mickelson was striking the ball well with his irons, an important key to succes in US Opens, while also yielding a hot putter.
With the weather not cooperating with the USGA, Merion Golf Club seems vulnerable to a birdie barrage, especially among the longer hitters who will have wedges into nearly half of the greens.
Add to the mix that Mickelson is first on Tour this year in birdies and eighth in strokes gained - putting, and the soon-to-be 43 year old could be looking at his best chance to raise the US Open Trophy since 2009.
"I'm really encouraged with the way I hit my irons," Mickelson said following the St. Jude. "I've got to get the 3-wood in play a little bit more, although next week at Merion distance won't be as critical as at TPC Southwind. I'll be able to hit higher and softer shots."
Those softer shots with will likely come off of wedges from one of the best short-iron players in the history of the game, which translates to more looks at birdie.
Always one to inject a sense intrigue into the biggest weeks of the year, Mickelson not only will keep the driver out of the bag at Merion this week, he won't be back on the tournament grounds until Thursday morning before his 7:11 a.m. tee time.
"I was scheduled to return to San Diego after my 2:30 press conference Tuesday. I came back Monday," Mickelson said in a statement. "My daughter Amanda is speaking at her 8th grade graduation ceremony and I always planned on being here for that, but since it was raining so much Monday and we didn't know if we'd even be able to play a sloppy course, I came home last night to practice in great weather on my range and greens. I'll be ready to go Thursday."
Always one with a flair for the dramatic, the idea of Mickelson hoisting the US Open Trophy on Father's Day after leaving a major championship venue midweek to see his daughter graduate seems so crazy only Phil could pull it off.
Chris Chaney is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based sportswriter. He has written for multiple outlets including WrongFairway.com, Hoopville.com, The Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer and The Clermont (OH) Sun.
Follow him on Twitter @Wrong_Fairway.
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