For years, Phil Mickelson carried with him the dreaded title of “best golfer never to win a major”.
He turned pro out of Arizona State University in 1992, and won his first PGA Tour event as a professional in just his second season on Tour. For Lefty, it was never a question of talent, but simply a matter of whether he could put everything together for four days at one of golf‘s biggest championships.
Then the breakthrough came at The Masters in 2004. He followed it up with a win in the PGA Championship in 2005, then took his second green jacket in 2006 and third in 2010. He’s got the proverbial monkey off his back in majors, but this week will bring about the question that still chases Mickelson every summer: can he win the U.S. Open?
The record is well known: Mickelson has finished as the runner-up at the national championship five times. The most recent was in 2009 at Bethpage State Park‘s famed Black Course. So the question is, what’s stopped him from winning the U.S. Open when he’s come so close so often?
In 2009, it was simply a matter of falling behind some unlikely contenders and not making up the ground himself, but instead letting the leaders come back to him. Having shot even par or one under each round, Mickelson finished -2, two shots behind winner Lucas Glover.
In 2006, though, at Winged Foot, Mickelson was playing in the final pairing on Sunday, and needed only to make par on No. 18 to win. He hit his driver so far left that he couldn’t recover and made double-bogey, missing a playoff by one shot.
That’s going to be the focus this week at Merion — accuracy off the tee. Mickelson seems to have that as his sole focus in his preparation for the tournament. At Memphis last week, Mickelson didn’t even bring his driver with him and still tied for 33rd in driving accuracy and still averaged 314.4 yards off the tee on the way to a tie for second place. His iron game was on point as he hit just under 64 percent of his greens in regulation, good for 20th in the field.
The USGA will have Merion set up to punish errant tee shots at a track that measures just under 7,000 yards, by no means a bomber’s course. To win this week, Mickelson will need to be a calm, focused player and let his irons and putter do the majority of the work. If he can pull that off, this could be the time that he puts all those close calls to rest.