Mickelson tries new strategy, seeking US Open breakthrough

Phil Mickelson watches his second shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

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Phil Mickelson watches his second shot from the 18th fairway during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

Phil Mickelson wants to win the U.S. Open. Badly.

It's the only gap in his otherwise remarkable golf resume. If he were to win the Open this week at Shinnecock Hills, he would become only the sixth golfer in the modern era to win all four major championships.

A great career would become the stuff of legend. And Mickelson knows it.

"I mean, I really love the challenge," Mickelson said. "And I love that I have another opportunity to try and complete the career Grand Slam. ... That's certainly a goal and nothing I'm shying away from."

But as Mickelson gets ready for his 27th U.S. Open, he's realized that it is possible to want something so much that you push it away. So he'll be taking a different approach this week.

"My goal is not to try to win on Thursday," Mickelson said "My goal is to stay in it Thursday, stay in it Friday, and have an opportunity for the weekend. ... The last thing I'm thinking about right now is trying to win. I'm trying to get myself in position for the weekend because, when you try to go out and win a U.S. Open, you will lose it quick."

Mickelson gave a wry smile when asked if he had ever tried to win this tournament on a Thursday.

"Yes," he said. "And I was home Friday night."

Perhaps Mickelson, who turns 48 on Saturday, is trying not to get too far ahead of himself because he knows the wonderful opportunity that awaits him as he reaches the twilight of his career. The next three U.S. Opens are great chances for him to win.

Mickelson has finished in the top five the last two times the Open was played at Shinnecock — in 2004 he was the runner-up, two shots behind Retief Goosen and in 1995 he finished tied for fourth, four shots behind Corey Pavin.

Next year's U.S. Open will be played at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson has won four PGA Tour events; and in 2020, the Open will be played just north of Westchester, N.Y., at Winged Foot, where Mickelson was the runner up in 2006.

"Yeah, these three provide me a great opportunity to finish out this final leg," Mickelson said.

But if he wants to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win all four majors in the modern era, he'll have to overcome some demons.

Mickelson made a double-bogey on the 71st hole in his 2004 loss to Goosen here. That 2006 loss at Winged Foot came when Mickelson seemed poised to break through, only to double-bogey the final hole of the championship to lose.

In all, Mickelson has a record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. But it would be fitting for him get the job done in front of the New York City area crowds, where he has become a runaway fan favorite.

The love affair with the area fans really got started in 2002, at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black where Mickelson was the undisputed favorite as he battled with Tiger Woods. It continued in North Jersey in 2005, when he won the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Every time he's teed it up at a major in these parts since, it's been like a home game.

But at Shinnecock this year, Mickelson also has the advantage of loving the way the course is set up. In the 14 years since his tough loss here, Shinnecock has restored its course to what it played like in the 1930s. That's meant the removal of several hundred trees, the widening of many fairways — they're playing an average of 15 yards wider than they were in 2004 — and the rough around the greens has been trimmed back, allowing for more creativity with chipping.

Not surprisingly, Mickelson, who has one of the best short games in history, loves it.

"It's the best setup, in my opinion, that we've seen," Mickelson said. "The reason why I'm excited about the setup is short game is going to be a huge factor. If you do miss a green, it will stay in fairway. It will stay where touch will be a factor."

Mickelson knows he has a great opportunity, late in his career, to get a win that would change everything for him. But he made it clear: when he left the interview room, he wasn't going to think about that.

"The way you get in trouble here is you anticipate too much and you get too far ahead (of yourself)," Mickelson said. "Right now, I just want to enjoy these first couple of days of preparation and go shoot a number on Thursday, not get ahead of myself, and hopefully give myself a chance on the weekend."

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