Tuesday, June 10

New U.S. Open, same Phil

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- "When you gonna win a major, Phil?"

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson performed his usual song and dance when asked the dreaded majors question.

It's happening. Again. As consistent as the Cubs falling from pennant contention, the annual game of "When Will Phil Mickelson Finally Break Through" is rekindled this week at the U.S. Open.

Mickelson knows it's coming. He prepares for it, counseled like a star witness when he responds to media inquiries.

Tuesday, he dealt with it like he has recently -- by not dealing with it.

"(I) to try to avoid it," he said after completing his only practice round of the week (Mickelson also played Olympic Fields on June 3 and again Sunday after missing the cut at the FBR Capital Open).

"I try to get my practice rounds in before people get here," Mickelson said without a hint of emotion. "I'll take the day off (Wednesday) and go somewhere else. Same thing (Monday). I find that staying out of the environment is the best way to deal with it."

Like it or not, this is what Mickelson is facing: He's playing in the U.S. Open for the 13th time. He's playing in a major championship for the 44th time. He's won 21 times on the PGA Tour and has banked more than $20 million.

But he's never won the big one.

Mickelson's reputation is that of an Open gag artist, a player who can't control his willingness to gamble or know when it's time to press on courses that reward patience and consistency. The stats say he's 79-over combined in his 12 U.S. Opens and has never finished under par.

The glass-half-full side of Mickelson tells a different story. The last time Mickelson was out of the top 10 after an Open round was the 2000 event at Pebble Beach, thanks to a final-round 76. At the conclusion of his last 17 U.S. Open rounds, he's been out of the top 10 just three times -- two fewer than Tiger Woods.

Of course, Woods has won two U.S. Open titles and seven majors in that stretch. Mickelson has won none. Consequently, to many, he's still a choker, still hasn't fulfilled his promise, still the guy with more talent than a god and fewer majors than Rich Beem.

"I haven't really thought about it," Mickelson said, again calculatingly, when asked the inevitable "What Do You Think About Being The Best Player Never to Win a Major?" question.

But he has. Despite pleas to the contrary, Mickelson relives history, especially on weeks of major championships. He can recall what club he hit and how he hit it with the precision of a Swiss watch. He knows that he's taken chances and lost. He knows he's played close to the vest, and lost.

He led through 18 and 36 holes in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 and lost to Payne Stewart. Last year, he couldn't overcome an eight-shot deficit through 36 holes, despite finishing 67-70 at Bethpage Black.

Mickelson says he'll take more chances this year, defying the tight Olympia Fields track by hitting driver on several holes. He says his strategy of staying near the even-par mark through 36 holes will have to be reevaluated.

"I think that has been a strategy that has done well for me the past so many years," Mickelson said. "(But) I think I may have to take a few more chances than I have in past Opens this week, in an effort to close the gap, to get below par heading into Sunday, because I think that the leaders Saturday night will be a few under par."

Mickelson isn't playing particularly well right now. He hasn't finished higher than a tie for 13th since The Masters in early April. He's 179th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, 51st in greens in regulation. Not even his magical short game can overcome that.

He missed the cut the week before The Masters, but finished third at Augusta. He wasn't altogether unhappy to miss the cut last weekend, either, to get to Olympia Fields for an extra day of practice -- minus the galleries and the questions.

"Without naming names, is there somebody who's won a major in recent years where you've said, 'Wait a minute, I know I'm better than him,' " Mickelson was asked Tuesday.

"I wouldn't touch that question with a 10-foot pole," he replied.

And until he finally wins a major, he probably won't.

David Kraft is an ESPN.com Senior Editor.

    ESPN    Web


North: How to win the U.S. Open

espn indexespn index