PINEHURST — Phil Mickelson is undoubtedly the people’s choice to win this U.S. Open.
He does not, however, appear to be his own putter’s choice.
And if he doesn’t get his putting woes solved, one of the best chances Mickelson has left to win the U.S. Open will go by the boards.
Trying to get a better read on Mickelson this week as he attempts to win the one Grand Slam title that has eluded him, I followed him for all 18 holes Thursday during the Open’s first round. From tee to green, he only hit about two bad shots.
But his putting stroke betrayed him – again. No matter how many times the thousands of fans watching tried to will the ball into the hole for him, they couldn’t get it there. And neither could he.
Mickelson ended up shooting even-par 70, which wasn’t far off the lead. But if he could have made anything over 8 feet, his round would have been closer to a 66.
“The one club that’s hurting me is the putter,” Mickelson said.
Because his putting has been so iffy in 2014, Mickelson switched his putting grip on the eve of the U.S. Open to the “claw,” which basically means his right hand is doing all the work and his left is barely on the club at all. The claw was not a catastrophe Thursday, but neither did it allow him to sink anything special.
How long will “the claw” last for a golfer who admittedly prefers to putt in a more conventional style?
“It might be weeks, might be months, might be days, hours – I don’t know,” Mickelson said. He even left open the possibility of switching grips again before Friday’s second round. He sounded like a man who is throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something will stick.
At least Mickelson got some good news Thursday, when he was reportedly cleared in one part of an insider stock trading investigation. He wouldn’t comment on specifics of the investigation Thursday other than to say he would “help out in any way” with it.
Said Mickelson: “I’ll continue to say that I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. ... I do have a lot to say and I will say it at the right time. ... I just can’t say it right now.”
In five hours of following Mickelson Thursday, I never heard a word about the investigation from a single fan. They love Mickelson, and it shines through at Pinehurst.
The first of his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open came at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, when Mickelson was edged by Payne Stewart and lost with grace before rushing home just before his first child, Amanda, was born the next day.
“It’s a special place for me,” Mickelson said. “I’ve got a lot of great emotions and memories from 1999.”
How storybook it would be, nearly everyone thinks, if Mickelson now won at the same course 15 years later.
But that’s not going to happen if Mickelson can’t putt. He is focused on something new suggested by his caddy, who noticed that his “eye alignment” has been off by a fraction when he’s lining up a putt.
“When I hit good putts, they’re not going in because it’s a distorted view,” Mickelson said.
This makes some sense, because several times Thursday you could see that Mickelson honestly thought a 10- to 15-foot putt was going in, only to miss it by a couple of inches. The crowd would groan again. Mickelson would lightly slap the blade of his putter like he was giving it a mild spanking.
Then he would come the next hole and Mickelson would blast another drive right down the middle. “I didn’t miss a fairway with my driver, and that’s an unusual thing for me,” Mickelson said.
Fans would cheer him as he walked toward the ball. A number of them knew he will turn 44 on Monday and wished him happy birthday. Along with the thousands of “Let’s go Phil!” chants, one man yelled, “C’mon, 6-16!” referring to Mickelson’s June 16 birthday. That drew a smile from the golfer.
But every time he settled over a putt, the frown returned. Mickelson made three birdies to go along with his three bogeys, but the birdies were mostly the result of fantastic iron shots.
“I’ve got to make some 15- and 20-footers,” Mickelson said. “The ones that can go either way. ... I didn’t make any today. But I’m going to keep working on it.”
And he was true to that statement. Right after Mickelson’s five-hour round, he headed straight to the putting green. He and his putter are having a lot of relationship issues, but they really are trying to work it out.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler