(Reuters) - Phil Mickelson is racing against father time as much as his competitors as he tries to complete a career grand slam of the four majors by winning the U.S. Open.
Mickelson, who has been runner-up in his national championship a record six times, will celebrate his 45th birthday on Tuesday, just two days before the opening round of the 115th U.S. Open, being played at Chambers Bay in Washington.
Should he go on to claim the title in the Pacific Northwest, he would become only the sixth player to win all four modern majors.
Mickelson would also become the second oldest U.S. Open champion behind fellow American Hale Irwin, who was also 45 when he beat Mike Donald at the 19th extra hole in a playoff for the 1990 title at Medinah.
Records are there to be broken but there is a reason why Irwin’s mark has stood for more than two decades. Experience may offer middle-aged players an edge in course management, but there is generally no substitute for the athleticism of youth.
This year’s U.S. Open, however, just might be different, due to the many nuances of a links-style Chambers Bay layout that takes time to learn.
Mickelson has already done his reconnaissance at the venue, which may give him an edge over late arrivals for the tournament — if widespread reports about the course’s many subtleties are to be believed.
The left-hander says Chambers Bay, adjacent to Puget Sound, is as close to a British Open links course as you will ever find in North America and he likens it to St. Andrews, a layout that has baffled many a first-timer.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of Chambers Bay. “The first time you play it, it’s like St. Andrews. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know what mounds do what to the ball.
“The first time I played St. Andrews, I’m like, I don’t know if I get it. Then the more you play it, the more you like it and you appreciate it, you understand where the balls are going to go and what type of shot is the highest percentage shot and how to get to certain pins and so forth.”
After digressing to talk about St. Andrews, Mickelson returned to the topic of Chambers Bay.
“I can see why the first impression isn’t as favorable for some,” he said. “But I think the more you play it, the more you like it. The first time you play it, though, you don’t know where (the ball is) going to go.
“You hit one place and it ends up over here. Then you realize where you’re supposed to try to hit it and how to get to certain pins. And then all of a sudden, it makes sense.”It plays exactly like the British Open plays. The ball runs like the British, you’re hitting the same shots as the British, and so it’s like a British Open in the U.S.”
Mickelson’s pre-tournament form is probably irrelevant, because he has shown time and again that mediocre performances in the lead-up tournaments have not prevented him from peaking for the majors.
But while he has won three Masters (2004, 2006, 2010), one British Open (2013) and one PGA Championship (2005), his bid for a first national Open has proved more elusive than a Bigfoot sighting in the woods of Washington State.
Not only has Mickelson finished runner-up a record six times, but in most of those near-misses he had a genuine chance of winning.
Two close calls that stand out are the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, where South African Retief Goosen putted like a magician in the final round, to edge Mickelson by two strokes.
Even closer was the 1999 Open at Pinehurst where Payne Stewart sank a 15-footer at the final hole to beat Mickelson by one shot.
But the near-miss that most rankles Mickelson is the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where he came to the final hole needing only a par to win and a bogey to force a playoff.
After hitting a bad drive, he could have pitched out, which would have given him a straightforward third shot to the green, and probably a bogey at worst.
Instead, Mickelson opted for the miracle shot, struck a tree and made a sickening double bogey to hand Australian Geoff Ogilvy the trophy.
“I am such an idiot,” Mickelson said afterwards. “I had it right there in my hands, and I let it go. I just can’t believe I did that.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes