GULLANE, Scotland — Phil Mickelson stood at the corner of a massive green grandstand framing one side of Muirfield’s 18th green last Sunday evening, a collection of international flags popping in the cool breeze above him, as he watched officials set the silver Claret Jug on a table for its presentation.
A moment before he was called to the green to accept the declaration of “champion golfer of the year,” Mickelson was talking with a handful of reporters he has come to know over his years.
“I never knew if I’d be able to win this tournament,” Mickleson said, his eyes red from the wind and the moment. “I hoped and believed it, but I never knew … until about an hour ago.”
Only one real question remains in Mickelson’s career: Can he finally win a U.S. Open and complete a career Grand Slam?
The best chance he might have going forward will come in June when the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2.
Mickelson’s legacy changed last Sunday at Muirfield when he won the Open Championship. He won it the way the great ones win and on a course where only the great ones seem to win. Capturing another Masters or PGA Championship wouldn’t change Mickelson’s place in the game the way his win at Muirfield did.
For years, it was easy to doubt whether Mickelson would be a truly great player. Not anymore.
The U.S. Open at Pinehurst is less than a year away but it sits on Mickelson’s shoulders now. It’s a place of history, and Mickelson has his own bittersweet backstory there.
The first of his record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open came in 1999 at Pinehurst when Payne Stewart beat him with a par putt on the 72nd hole, then hugged his face and told Mickelson he was going to love being a father. A day later, Amanda Mickelson was born, and she was there to see her dad win at Muirfield.
Mickelson was just getting started in 1999. He was 29 that year, and he would have more chances in the U.S. Open.
• At Shinnecock Hills in 2004, where a three-putt cost him.
• At Winged Foot in 2006 where a double bogey on the 72nd hole cost him.
• At Merion this year, where an eagle on the par-4 10th hole couldn’t carry him far enough.
Through all the disappointments in the tournament he says he most wants to win, Mickelson has smiled and hurt, said the right things, shown the disappointment in his eyes and promised he wouldn’t let it get him down.
After his colossal collapse at Winged Foot, Mickelson went to Disneyland with his family and friends two days later and didn’t mention the U.S. Open.
Mickelson moves forward. He sees opportunity, like the one he saw through the trees just off the 13th fairway at Augusta National three years ago. He will embrace the Pinehurst experience.
With its turtleback greens and vexing runoff areas that ask for both skill and imagination, Pinehurst No. 2 allows Mickelson to play to his strengths. He won’t have to rely on power, and he tends to be at his best when he throttles back, surrendering his fascination with length.
At times, No. 2 will ask for magic around its greens. Mickelson is so good around the greens, he should wear a sorcerer’s hat rather than a visor.
Mickelson is the emotional favorite in every U.S. Open he plays now. Tiger Woods is stalking history, but Mickelson is chasing redemption. It will hang heavy in the summer air at Pinehurst.
Now the question is whether, like Sam Snead, Mickelson will win virtually everything but the U.S. Open?
Only five players – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods – have won the career Grand Slam. Mickelson is a U.S. Open victory from joining the game’s most exclusive club.
“If I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that’s the sign of the complete great player,” Mickelson said last Sunday night.
“I’m a leg away, and it’s been a tough leg for me. Those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them in a different light.”
Mickelson can step into that light at Pinehurst.
Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to The Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.