Phil Mickelson downplays his chances of winning a U.S. Open at Pinehurst

David Cannon

Phil Mickelson really, really wants to win a U.S. Open but he says if it doesn’t happen this week at Pinehurst he’ll grab one sometime down the road.

Though desperate to add the lone missing piece to the career grand slam and, really, his Hall of Fame career, Phil Mickelson claims he has plenty of time to grab that elusive U.S. Open title. So Lefty says he won’t sweat it if this just isn’t his week.

"I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship and I believe that I'll have more opportunities," Mickelson told reporters Tuesday at Pinehurst, where, in 1999 playing with Payne Stewart and about to become a first-time father, he notched his first of a record six runner-up finishes.

"I don't want to put the pressure on that this is the only week that I'll have a chance," he said. "I think that I'll have a number of great opportunities in the future years, but this is certainly as good a chance as I'll have."

Whether Mickelson was hoping to sell himself or the golf world on the notion that he will shrug off the huge internal and external burdens on him to win this week in golf’s most intense pressure-cooker, we’re not buying. Like Tiger Woods, who kicked off his golfing sojourn by setting the bar of expectations impossibly high, the five-time major champion has put it out there that he needs a U.S. Open trophy to cap his life’s work.

"It's a career goal of mine to win all four majors," Mickelson said. "I feel like the five players that have done that have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time ... If I'm able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently."

Mickelson will start Thursday’s contest as the sentimental though not odds-on favorite to win, a triumph that would seal his legacy as one of the best golfers of all time. Indeed, a victory would elevate him into rarified air, joining an elite club comprised of Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods -- the only men in modern times to own at least one of all four major championship titles.

Mickelson will try to join the exclusive grand slam fraternity at a venue on which he notched his first of a record six second-place outcomes in his nation's Open. After Payne Stewart drilled that uphill, 18-footer for par and the win on the 72nd hole 15 years ago, he famously cupped Mickelson’s face in his hands and rejoiced with the dad-to-be about the joys of parenthood.

This week, Mickelson enters golf’s most demanding stress-test hardly at the peak of his game. In the worst start to his professional life on the links, Lefty has no top-10 finishes, three missed cuts, and two injury-related withdrawals in 14 PGA Tour events over the 2013-2014 season.

Despite terming his putting in the final round in Memphis last week "pathetic," he put together three good rounds on his way to a T11 and has switched back to the claw grip as well as the blade he used to win last year's British Open.

"I feel as good about my game today as I have all year," he said Tuesday. "It's not saying a lot, because I haven't played well all year, but last week was a good week for me."

Which hardly guarantees Mickelson has his ball-striking, short game, and work with the flat stick at the point where he could pull an upset over the bookmaker’s choice, Rory McIlroy, especially since it will take all he has physically and mentally. And, man, does he want to put the U.S. Open in the win column this week, at this place, where he watched Stewart slam home that putt in '99.

''Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens,'' Mickelson said. ''Although I haven't won one yet, I'm still fighting hard, and this would be a great place to break through and do it. The flip side is that I tend to do well when it's least expected."

It may be least expected because of more than game-related stresses, given the news that broke during the Memorial that he was involved in a federal investigation into insider trading. Despite claiming he had done "absolutely nothing wrong," would not such a high-profile issue that has the potential to affect his all-American image and endorsement deals be an enormous distraction for Mickelson?

Not so, according to Dottie Pepper, who believes the playing area serves as a golfer’s sanctuary.

"The golf course becomes a safe haven," the two-time major champion told SB Nation recently. "It can actually work to be a positive for the players. I know when I was having some off-course issues, I couldn’t wait to get to the course; it was my space."

Andy North, the owner of two U.S. Open victories and Pepper's colleague at ESPN, agreed, contending during a teleconference last week that "no one can get to you" on the course.

"The phone can't ring, no one can ask you questions about whatever it is, and you get out there and find your little space," said North. "Sometimes that creates a situation where a guy can play exceptionally well."

If anyone can shut out the tumult surrounding him, it’s Mickelson, who presents a public persona of a guy who only sees a glass as completely full. Those half-dozen bridesmaid finishes? A blessing, not a curse.

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

For sure, a Mickelson victory after the continuing heartbreak that began in the Sandhills of North Carolina 15 years ago and culminated (so far) last year at Merion is what many outside the ropes will be cheering for.

"What a great story it would be if Phil completed the grand slam here," Stewart’s daughter Chelsea Stewart said on the grounds where her father earned his final victory before dying in a plane crash four months later.

Johnny Miller, who (you may have heard) authored a 63 on his way to winning his 1973 national championship, concurred.

"A lot of players think Phil’s a little Hollywood," Miller said during a Golf Channel/NBC roundtable chat Tuesday night. "But if he were to win this week, it’s the perfect Hollywood script."

The question looms larger than the absence of Tiger Woods at this year’s U.S. Open: Can Phil write the perfect Hollywood ending?

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