DUBLIN, Ohio -- Is this finally the year?
That question has haunted Phil Mickelson year after year during his quest to win an elusive U.S. Open title. And it's understandable why the question continues to be asked -- he's a six-time runner-up in the event, including in 2004 at this year's venue, Shinnecock Hills.
Mickelson, who has 43 PGA Tour victories, will try again when the U.S. Open begins June 14.
The pressure will definitely be there for Lefty. He turns 48 on the Saturday of the tournament. The oldest player to win the U.S. Open is Hale Irwin, who was 45 when he won it in 1990. With a win, Mickelson would be the second-oldest major winner. Julius Boros, the oldest, was also 48 (born March 3, 1920, he won the 1968 PGA Championship on July 21).
"People shouldn't look at Phil based off his age," said Branden Grace, who was paired with Mickelson in last week's final two rounds of the Memorial Tournament. "His driver is still there with his ability to hit it pretty long, and the short game is still great. By walking around with him and seeing the way he does things, it's clear he's working toward the U.S. Open. He's probably doing things that he thinks is needed to succeed there."
The vision is there for Mickelson. It's a matter of putting all the necessary pieces together for him to be in the mix throughout the weekend. Mickelson wrapped up the Memorial with a "little bit of momentum" by shooting 10-under to finish in a tie for 13th overall. He made up for a slow start in the first round by shooting 12-under over the final three rounds.
"The game, ballstriking and so forth feels sharp," Mickelson said. "I've got to do a little bit better job of course management, figuring out how I want to play holes to make easy pars for Shinnecock and some of the other courses. ... The ability to practice longer each day, the ability to stay sharper for more holes throughout the round and more shots throughout the round is building, yes. And that's kind of the goal, obviously, heading into the U.S. Open. I was declining a while ago, so now it's starting to go back up."
Mickelson's momentum has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride over the past few months. After finishing 36th overall at the Masters, he followed up with a top-5 finish at Wells Fargo. The following week, Mickelson failed to make the cut at the Players before rebounding at the Memorial. He has one victory this season (WGC in Mexico back in early March) and is trending to make U.S. Ryder Cup team.
"It's about getting comfortable and building some confidence heading into a major," Mickelson's caddie and brother, Tim, said. "Whether it's a U.S. Open or the PGA or The Masters, it's about building up confidence so that when they arrive they feel like their game is where it needs to be. ... He's having a great putting year. Irons are awesome and if we could hit one or two more fairways every week, we're going to be in contention every week."
But the immediate priority is Shinnecock. Mickelson is set to play in the St. Jude Classic in Memphis later this week because he wants to "keep building some momentum for the U.S. Open" like he routinely does before a major instead of taking the week off. But before going to Memphis, Mickelson was expected to fly to New York from Ohio on Sunday night, where he planned to spend Monday and Tuesday getting practice rounds in at Shinnecock. He played nine holes there the Tuesday before the Memorial.
"I think this year's U.S. Open is the greatest setup going in that I have seen in my 25-whatever years of playing the U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "It will reward the best player as opposed to having luck be a big element on some of the bounces in the fairway, bounces around the green, how it comes out of the rough, so forth. Skill is going to be the primary factor this week.
"The fairway is much wider, but the rough is much more penalizing," Mickelson added. "I don't know what they'll do with the fescue. Fescue is over my knees. If you're 3 yards off the fairway, I couldn't get back to the fairway. I love how they shaved around the green. It's going to take the balls much further from the hole, but it's a doable shot opposed to hack it out of uncontrollable rough."
This is the third time Mickelson will play in a U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He was in contention heading into the final round before finishing tied for fourth in his first top-10 finish in 1995. Mickelson finished second, two shots behind Retief Goosen, in 2004, but many players were critical of that year's course, saying the greens were so firm and burned out that water had to be applied on them during the final round.
Mickelson and Rory McIlroy have also made critical comments about how the United States Golf Association has handed the course at Shinnecock in the past. Mickelson now likes how the course plays. He also says he believes he has some momentum in his favor. But the question will continue to be there: Can he finally win a U.S. Open to become only the sixth player in history to win all four major championships?
"I think that it doesn't really matter where we play our national championship," he said. "We're going to show up and we're going to try and compete to win our national open. It really doesn't matter what the site is and how it's set up. All that matters is you're going to try to shoot the lowest score. I don't want to get locked up in the history of it. It doesn't matter."