SAN DIEGO – Full disclosure here: for the better part of three years, your scribe has used this space to end the watercooler debate regarding Phil Mickelson and the U.S. Open – not going to happen.
Lefty’s national championship sun set in 2019, when he tied for 52nd at Pebble Beach on his 49th birthday. This wasn’t about age, at least not entirely. The cliché stands: the golf ball doesn’t know how old you are. This was about diminished returns.
Pebble Beach, where he’d won earlier that year at the “Crosby,” was his last chance to break through the Grand Slam ceiling and his magical week last month at Kiawah Island doesn’t change that assessment.
Becoming the oldest major champion at the PGA Championship was the final piece of a legacy that didn’t need any padding. It was also the kind of spark that, framed in the proper light, could lead to even bigger and better things. Things like a U.S. Open to round out Lefty’s major portfolio and make him just the sixth player to win the modern career Grand Slam.
Not going to happen.
This isn’t an unnecessarily hot take or even a particularly creative opinion. Those whose job it is to tell stories for a living should consider just the chance of Mickelson making more late-in-life magic a gift from the golf gods.
The native son grew up playing Torrey Pines and is arguably the most compelling figure to compete for the U.S. Open. The six-time runner-up has played every role from emotional supporting actor, like at the ’99 championship when he finished a shot behind the late Payne Stewart just before becoming a father, to tragic hero, there are a few to choose from but ’06 at Winged Foot is the consensus best in class.
It would be a story that’s too big to write. And other than Tiger Woods limping to a second U.S. Open title on the South Course, which isn’t even on the menu, it would be the most compelling possible narrative this week.
Not going to happen.
On Monday when he spoke with the media, Mickelson hit all the right notes. He’s “hopeful” his game will keep progressing like it did at Kiawah. Torrey Pines is a “special place” to him.
But this is where Lefty’s message starts to become suspect. Despite having grown up playing Torrey Pines he said he’s spent the last week trying to “relearn” the course.
“I really made an effort here, having the last week off, to spend time out here and really learn, relearn the greens,” he said. “I spent a lot of hours out here on the greens last week to see if I can get that local knowledge again, and we'll see how it goes, but I had a lot of fun kind of relearning and spending a lot of time out here.”
This all goes to a deeper divide between Mickelson and Torrey Pines, following Rees Jones’ redesign of the South Course in 2001. Mickelson won the Farmers Insurance Open for the third time in February of ’01, before Jones’ handiwork. He hasn’t won at his “home course” since and has just three top-5 finishes since ’01.
That run includes a tie for 18th at the 2008 U.S. Open, which was famously won by Woods on a broken leg.
If the idea was that Jones would Tiger-proof Torrey Pines for the ’08 championship, it’s felt more like a Lefty-proofing.
“I just have tried to do too much in the past,” Mickelson said. “A typical thing of Rees Jones is every bunker the green goes away. Wherever the bunker is, the green is pitched away, so you really can't short side yourself because you can't get it up and down out of those bunkers that are pitched away.”
The relationship became even more complicated when Mickelson withdrew his bid to redesign the North Course at Torrey Pines because of bureaucratic red tape. At the time Lefty said he was “deeply disappointed” with situation.
Mickelson also intends to relocate to South Florida in the coming months and although he’s reluctant to wade into politically charged waters, he did threaten to leave his home state in 2013 because of California’s tax rate.
He’ll be billed this week as the Favorite Son and Mickelson understands all too well the heft that it comes with. He’s been answering questions about his missing U.S. Open title since that near-miss at Pinehurst in ’99 and the spotlight will only be brighter after last month’s PGA Championship.
“It's a unique opportunity, because I've never won a U.S. Open. It's in my backyard. I have a chance to prepare properly, and I wanted to put in the right work,” he said. “I've kind of shut off all the noise. I've shut off my phone. I've shut off a lot of the other stuff to where I can kind of focus in on this week and really give it my best chance to try to play my best.”
Maybe it’s best Lefty has shut out all the noise. Maybe it’s easier for him to believe that something truly special can happen without the clouding influences of statistics and records. Maybe it’s best he doesn’t have to hear the obvious – not going to happen.