Mickelson, again, searching for career-defining victory


PINEHURST, N.C. -- It has been 15 years since Phil Mickelson finished second to Payne Stewart in the first U.S. Open held at Pinehurst No. 2 -- the first of what would be a record six runner-up finishes in the national championship for Lefty.

The second-place finishes sting even more because the U.S. Open is the one major title that has eluded Mickelson, who has won three Masters, a PGA and British Open.

When Mickelson came so close in 1999, losing by a shot when Stewart made a 18-foot par putt at the final hole that remains one of the most vivid memories in U.S. Open history, he never thought he still would be searching for the one victory that would elevate him among the greatest golfers of all time.

Mickelson would become only the sixth player in history to complete golf's Grand Slam -- winning all four majors -- and the thought of being able to do it at Pinehurst, at the scene of where it all began, would make the accomplishment even sweeter.

"It's a career goal of mine to win all four majors," Mickelson said Tuesday after playing a practice round with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler at the restored layout. "I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time. It shows that they have a complete game. If I'm able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently. That's why it would mean so much, in addition to the fact it's our national championship."

Then he added, "To do it right here, where Payne and I had this moment where he we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens."

Mickelson and his wife, Amy, were expecting their first child around the 1999 Open, and Mickelson said he would leave the tournament at any point, even if he was leading, if the beeper that he carried went off.

That never happened -- his daughter, Amanda, was born the day after the Open -- but it's the reason Stewart put his hands around Mickelson's face and told him he would make a great father in that now memorable scene.

"I have a lot of very fond emotional memories, from the '99 experience with Payne Stewart and coming so close and now my daughter who is going to be 15 and we just started teaching her to drive," Mickelson said. "It's just amazing how much time has gone by to hear that this is my 24th U.S. Open.

"I don't feel that old. I guess I look it, but I don't feel it. Pinehurst here has so many great memories for me, even though it's not a place that I have won a national championship, I'm certainly trying to change that this week."

Mickelson did not lose the U.S. Open in 1999 as much as Stewart won it, one-putting each of the final three holes, including a 5-footer for birdie at the par-3 17th.

It wasn't like the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot when Mickelson double-bogeyed the final hole trying to carve a 3-iron from the left rough through a tiny opening in the trees. That handed the title to Geoff Oglivy, prompting NBC commentator Johnny Miller to observe, "Ben Hogan is officially rolling over in his grave."

Mickelson's most recent close call at a U.S. Open came a year ago at Merion, and it was his trusty wedge game that did him in on the final seven holes when he finished tied for second, two shots behind England's Justin Rose.

At age 43, he will try again when the U.S. Open begins Thursday.

"Growing up here in the United States, this is a tournament that I've always felt this patriotism for and would love to win," Mickelson said. "Plus, with all the close calls."

Mickelson's quest to win the U.S. Open took on greater significance less than a year ago when he won the British Open -- a tournament many, including Mickelson, didn't think he could win. That left him just one major shy of joining Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player as the only players to complete golf's Grand Slam.

Mickelson, though, hasn't won a tournament this year, his worst start to a season since 2003. Worse, he has been linked to an insider trading investigation involving investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters. Mickelson was even visited by FBI agents at the Memorial.

But, despite all his near-misses, Mickelson thinks he can still win the U.S. Open -- and maybe more than one.

"Some people view it as though, 'He's come close and he's never done it.' I see it as though I've finished second six times in this event," Mickelson said. "I played some of my best golf in this event, and I should have an opportunity -- and more than one opportunity -- to close one out here and in the future."

Looking ahead

■ What: 114th U.S. Open.

■ When: Thursday.

■ Where: Pinehurst, N.C.

■ TV: Coverage begins at 9 a.m. on ESPN.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com an Twitter @gerrydulac.

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