ONLY one thing could surpass seeing the US Open Championship being played at his own beloved Torrey Pines this week for Phil Mickelson – and that would be to win the tournament itself.
Mickelson is a San Diegan through and through and is assured of massive support over the next four days.
Long regarded as golf’s greatest under-achiever, he has shed that label after two Masters wins and also a US PGA Championship. However, for an American, winning their own national Open is a must on the CV and given all the circumstances in Phil’s favour, this week could offer the best opportunity of the 37 year-old’s career.
“As a kid, we dreamed and hoped that a major championship would come to Southern California and the ideal spot would be Torrey Pines,” he enthused. “And the redesign six or seven years ago has made that dream a reality. I just can’t believe this is the US Open here at Torrey Pines.
“I am so excited about the way the golf course is being presented. I just think it’s a fabulous place. It’s lush and beautifully green. It will be a difficult test but a fair test. It’s the best set-up I’ve ever seen for a US Open. And for me personally, this tournament means a lot to me after growing up here.”
Mickelson was becoming a little emotional as he spoke and you wondered if he was imposing an almost intolerable level of pressure on himself.
“I haven’t felt extra pressure per se but what I have done is to try and minimise my time constraints,” he says. “I haven’t done as many media interviews. I probably haven’t signed as many autographs. I want to make sure my energy is up this week. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to compete in the US Open on the course I grew up on.
“And so I want to give myself every opportunity to play my best golf this week. I am giving myself the best chance to prepare, get my game ready, to understand and know the golf course and play my best. I enjoy the challenge of winning a major even though I hadn’t won one until 2004. I enjoy the challenge of a US Open and having that opportunity in San Diego is exciting”.
While Mickelson is much too shrewd to suggest that the championship could develop into a two horse race, he does see the man he has been paired with for the first two days, as his chief rival despite the fact that the world number one is recovering from knee surgery and hasn’t played competitively for nine weeks.
“Tiger has come back from injury in the past and won the first week back,” he pointed out. “He has had huge lay-offs and come back and won. He takes a bunch of time off before his tournament in LA and he comes out and he wins. I just don’t see how it is going to have a negative effect on him. Players in any sport, including golf, have to deal with injuries or what have you. And I can’t see a player make adjustments easier than Tiger. I just don’t think it will be a problem.”
Earlier in the week, Woods had lauded the USGA for sending the world’s top players out together in the first two rounds. The cynics might suggest that Mickelson had to go down the same route or else he would lose out psychologically to his great rival. But he did seem genuine enough in his enthusiastic welcome for the initiative.
“I think it’s awesome,” he gushed. “I wish we had more of it. I haven’t liked the way the PGA Tour puts us on opposite ends every week. I think it’s great that a major championship has us paired together because usually one end of the tee times has an advantage over the other.
“I’ve certainly been on the good end a number of times and I’m not complaining. But there are times when you’re not on the good end and for us to be on the same wave, early/late, late/early, makes it a fair championship.”
Mickelson plays down suggestions that he hasn’t what it takes to dominate a US Open type golf course, pointing out quite fairly: “I’ve come close four times, I’ve had four second places. This is a tournament I know and believe I can win. I think this golf course gives me the best opportunity available to do that. And doing that is something that would define my career”.
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