For this week, it's "Phil-hurst."
Pinehurst No. 2's United States Open golf championship is about Phil, Phil, and more Phil. And when in doubt, talk more about Phil.
We've been waiting 11 months for this, ever since Phil Mickelson kissed the Claret Jug at Muirfield on that July Sunday, just after crafting the finest golf round of the 21st century, that final-round 66 that brought him his fifth major, endless respect and the third leg of the coveted and historic career Grand Slam.
The hand-operated amber scoreboards at the 2013 Open Championship were barely taken down before the golf world asked: Now … can Phil finally win the U.S. Open? Can Phil finally win his country's national championship? Can Phil join The List, that list of Masters-era career Grand Slam winners?
Not a bad list, by the way: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.
That's varsity-only, sports fans.
So with apologies to the world No. 1 Adam Scott, and the world's No. 1 cad, Rory McIlroy, and all them Southern boys who seem to fit Pinehurst's mood so well – Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas and all them good ole boys – it's all about Phil this week.
Consider that just last year, Mickelson went to historic Merion and had the Open in his grasp. And yet … twice on the back nine, on Merion's 13th and 15th holes, Lefty would make inexplicable bogeys with pitching wedges in his hand on both holes. Justin Rose would win the U.S. Open.
If you were counting – and we all were – the Merion Miss turned into Mickelson's sixth U.S. Open runner-up finish. Let me repeat that: His sixth U.S. Open runner-up finish. Those are six June Sundays of epic agony, six coulda-woulda-shouldas that coulda-woulda-shoulda changed golf annals, and changed Lefty's place in the history books. The memory is fresh.
And then you consider where we are going this week, to Pinehurst amid the Sandhills region of North Carolina, the memories get even thicker for Phil and all of us, too. In 1999, when Pinehurst No. 2 hosted its first U.S. Open in its 100-plus year history, Mickelson, a much-younger man, a man who had yet to become a father even, only 29 years old, went 67-70-73 in his first three rounds. The final round began with Phil trailing leader Payne Stewart by one stroke. Lefty worked his way to a one-stroke lead walking off the 15th tee – all the while wearing a beeper (a beeper! 1999!) to await word of his wife Amy's impending birth of their first child, with Phil telling anyone who asked he would leave Pinehurst in an instant to be with his wife, U.S. Open be damned.
And then … Phil bogeyed 16. And then … Payne birdied 17. And then .… Payne made that 15-foot par putt to win the U.S. Open and cradled Phil's face in his hands and told him: "You are going to be a father. That is more important." Heartbreak and full hearts, all at once.
Yep, Phil does drama at the U.S. Open. Large.
Because then came his near-miss run at Tiger at Bethpage in 2002, and his 71st hole double bogey to tumble from the lead in 2004 at Shinnecock, and his epic Winged Foot fail in 2006 when Phil declared "I am such an idiot" for hitting driver on 18 with the lead, and another silver medal at Bethpage in 2009, and then Merion.
Not content to let us marinate in Phil's journey to that point, he turned in that Muirfield round, that blend of artistry and courage and skill in Scotland, of all places, and he was three-fourths of the way home to the career Slam – having won the Masters in '04, '06 and '10; the PGA Championship in '05.
And now Pinehurst awaits, again.
It awaits with its sandy and weedy edges, its tall pines, its 1999 ghosts, its statue of Payne Stewart exulting in his triumph over Phil. It awaits for Phil playing after he's been questioned for insider trading by the FBI, perhaps the most Phil Thing Ever.
Or maybe the most Phil Thing Ever would be for him to win amid all that. Or maybe the most Phil Thing Ever would be for him to land yet another runner-up amid all that.
Either way, he's the guy. Can't wait.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
69-66-65-61 – 23-under 261, Inbee Park, winner, Manulife Financial LPGA Classic, Grey Silo Golf Course, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Don't look now, but the LPGA is hotter than a North Carolina summer.
Inbee Park won three majors a year ago, reached No. 1, then wobbled. She came to Canada not having won in a year, and lost her No. 1 ranking to American Stacy Lewis just last week.
Her answer? A "How Do You Like Me Now?" 61 – 61! – on Sunday to zip past the field and reclaim her mojo.
With the Women's U.S. Open set for Pinehurst No. 2 next week – in an unprecedented back-to-back, same-course USGA national championship arrangement – we now have the following heavyweights warming up in the locker room:
• Park, seemingly motivated again to climb atop the totem pole, carding a Sunday 61 in her competitors' faces the equivalent of a LeBron drive-and-dunk.
• Lewis, still No. 1, and no slouch herself after shooting a final-round 63 on Sunday, letting Park know she's not going anywhere.
• The veteran Cristie Kerr, as salty and competitive as ever at age 36, looking to add a third major and also shooting a Sunday 63 in Canada, admitting she was stunned when saw Park's round on the leaderboard.
• There remains the phenom Lydia Ko, who finished tie-4th in Canada, a win under her belt already this spring. She's still 17 years old, by the way. And No. 3 in the world, by the way.
• And good ole Michelle Wie herself. The Big Wiesey is playing the best golf of her life, shooting four rounds in the 60s for a tie-6th, her eighth top-10 of the year to go along with her win in Hawaii.
In other words, can those guys get off Pinehurst in timely fashion, please? We're looking to stage a delicious U.S. Women's Open here. Chop, chop.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
Somebody check the Web.com Cleveland Open leaderboard. Are they done yet?
For the love of ruining DVR recording times, Web.com veterans Stephen Alker and Dawie van der Walt engaged in an 11-hole playoff on Sunday. Even worse, they had to spend 11 extra holes in Cleveland.
Kidding! Kidding, Clevelanders. I have great respect for the legacy of Jim Brown, the Cavaliers' old suburban arena from the 1970s and the notion of Johnny Manziel's fingers freezing together when he tries to do the "Make Money" sign in late December.
Anyway, what a deal. These guys played the golf equivalent of "Dueling Banjos" for 11 holes, except that even the banjo players might have given up at some point. Thing is, they matched pars for 10 holes in a row before Alker made birdie to win the longest playoff in Web.com tour history, tying the PGA Tour record set in 1949.
I love the idea of an 11-hole playoff, but I'd love it more if the players were doing wonderful things, like matching birdies. So, in the interest of making the 11-hole playoff even more epic than it was, can we go back out to a few of those birdie putts, dump those boring lag putts, encourage each guy to rev it up and drain a big one for the sake of drama and … give those men a mulligan!
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"With those greens and Phil's short game, you've got to give him a chance." – Gary McCord, CBS, on Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst.
He may be about to turn 44 the day after the U.S. Open, and he may be vying to become the oldest U.S. Open winner since Hale Irwin won in 1990 at age 45, but it's going to come down to Phil Mickelson's nerves. Specifically, how his nerves work on and around the greens. That's what Pinehurst demands.
Donald Ross designed those famous "upside down cereal bowl" greens, as they've been called, and it requires deft touch and expansive imagination. John Daly was so flummoxed by the Pinehurst greens he once gave up and smacked a rolling golf ball after another failed chip. Then again, that's John Daly, so we should discount that as an example of patience, strategy and wisdom.
Few in the world do deft touch and expansive imagination around the greens like Phil. It's why he darn near won the thing in 1999. Then again, and especially of late, few do heartbreaking lip-out putts from short range like Phil Mickelson. It's why picking him to win this week is such a dicey thing.
Watching Phil's short game on the ultimate stage for four tense days? Sign me up for some serious couch time.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Somebody remind Phil his tee time is 7:51 am Thursday morning at Pinehurst No. 2. He'll be playing with Justin Rose and amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick. The rest is in the hands of the golf gods.