What a prize lies in wait if the gambler can change his ways. Arguably there would be no greater storyline at the conclusion of this US Open Championship than Phil Mickelson raising the trophy aloft, thereby completing a grand slam of majors and endorsing his status as one of the finest players in the game’s history.
A Mickelson victory would bury the demon of six, routinely painful, second places in this tournament. For the fairytale to come true Mickelson must curb natural instincts.
Mickelson’s penchant for risk-taking has long established him as a great entertainer. He remains swashbuckling, compulsive viewing. It is reckless behaviour in his personal life that has caused the man who turns 46 on Thursday a recent and untypical wave of negative publicity, the golfer agreeing to pay close to $1m as part of the conclusion to an insider trading case.
Intrigue stretches further. The US Securities and Exchange Commission stated Mickelson placed bets with the famous Las Vegas professional gambler Billy Walters. Any connection to Walters should be sufficient to cause Mickelson a problem under PGA Tour player conduct rules, notwithstanding the ludicrous veil of secrecy that body retains regarding matters of discipline.
Mickelson has tried to label the matter as closed. It was therefore a surprise he appeared for pre-tournament media duties at all before this, his 26th US Open. That he did prompted a few awkward moments. “I’m not going to comment on that,” said the golfer when asked whether the Tour has been in touch. “Good question but I’m not going to go there.”
Had he suffered anxiety? “I wasn’t worried. I’m not worried. It’s behind me. I don’t even think about it. I’m excited that it’s behind me.”
This murky business has not diminished Mickelson’s popularity in the eyes of a fawning American public. The five-times major winner’s status as golf’s blue-eyed family man was endorsed by a flying visit home to San Diego from Pittsburgh for the eighth-grade graduation of his daughter Sophia on Tuesday. Mickelson did precisely the same for another of his children, Amanda, in 2013 and went on to finish second at Merion.
He was asked whether this image contradicts an insider trading investigation. “I’ve got to be more careful in my associations going forward and so forth,” Mickelson said. “But I don’t really have much more to add. I think after a multiple-year investigation which led to nothing, no charges or anything, I think that that kind of says enough for me.”
For Mickelson to prevail on Sunday, patience will need to dominate over a natural propensity to attempt the remarkable. Oakmont will brutally punish those who stray off fairways, find bunkers or leave even mid-range downhill putts.
And yet, history says the game’s luminaries win at this venue. William C Fownes Jr, the son of the founder of Oakmont and himself a former US amateur champion, produced a legendary quote when asked about the course’s ferocious difficulty. “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside,” said Fownes. In other words chancers need not apply. Mickelson would sit comfortably on Oakmont’s roll of honour.
Mickelson is in fine form. His 18-hole scoring average is the seasonal best on the PGA Tour. A driving accuracy of 55% is offset slightly by the necessity to use irons and fairway woods from the majority of Oakmont’s tees. Putting is once again a strength. Perhaps most pertinent is the time lapsed since his last win, almost three years, albeit that was in lofty circumstances: at the Open Championship.
“There’s no question; starting this year and every year forward until I ultimately win this tournament, it will be my biggest thought, my biggest focus because I view those players that have won the four majors totally different than I view all the others,” Mickelson added. “I think about it all the time. This is the tournament I want to win the most.”
A warning was fired by another high-profile entrant, Adam Scott. “I haven’t seen a better set-up for me than this,” he said. “If I can drive the ball how I usually do, I think I’m at a little bit of an advantage starting out playing from down the fairway here this week. So I’m excited.”
As the ninth US Open at such an iconic course dawns, he is not alone. Mickelson’s aim is simply to switch his narrative back towards the one he was once accustomed to.
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