PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The golfing gods can be very kind, even benevolent at times. They also can be cruel and difficult to comprehend.
Phil Mickelson has been on both ends of the spectrum, having won five major championships among his 44 PGA Tour titles, with his latest victory on Monday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
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With another victory at Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson would seem to be looking forward to the U.S. Open’s return to the Monterey Peninsula, but first there is the matter of that annual April invitational in Augusta, Ga., he says.
At 48, Mickelson also has experienced his share of despair.
In the 1999 U.S. Open, Payne Stewart beat Mickelson by holing an 18-foot putt on the final hole at Pinehurst. It was Mickelson’s first runner-up finish in a major championship. Stewart knew that Mickelson, who had just turned 29 that week, would have many more opportunities.
In the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Mickelson struggled for 17 holes in the final round but still clung to the lead on the 72nd tee. A drive far left and an ill-advised 3-iron escape from trees led to his downfall, leaving Mickelson stunned as Geoff Ogilvy held the U.S. Open trophy.
At Pebble Beach in 2010, the golfing gods gave Mickelson a taste and then yanked it away, this time as psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis challenged and eventually defeated Mickelson in his quest for an elusive first U.S. Open title.
At Merion in the 2013 U.S. Open, Mickelson, one of the game’s best wedge players, found himself in contention in Sunday’s final round before he spit the bit on Nos. 13 and 15. With a sixth runner-up in the Open, a despondent Mickelson seemed to have squandered his best chance yet at the national championship.
After the blunder at Merion, the golfing gods might have arisen to ask, How many opportunities must we provide you?
On Sunday here, the golfing gods started to build a case for the 2019 U.S. Open, slotting Mickelson into the role of favorite with his fifth victory at Pebble Beach, the host venue for this year’s national championship (scores).
The argument can be made that the conditions for the AT&T in February and the U.S. Open in June will be markedly different. After Mickelson flipped Paul Casey’s three-shot 54-hole lead to a three-shot deficit over 16 holes of the final round, eventually shooting a bogey-free 7-under 65, he leaves the Monterey Peninsula with a level of confidence, but not necessarily for the U.S. Open. First, there is the business of a potential fourth green jacket at the Masters in April.
“The two areas of Augusta that I think are critical are chipping and putting and driving long,” Mickelson said. “Those are the two areas to me. Iron play is always important there, but it's important anywhere. The two areas that you have to be at your best to play well at Augusta: You’ve got to hit the ball long and have a really good short game. And those were two areas that were very helpful here. My short irons were great, and I hit the ball a long way. And that's why I'm optimistic heading into April.”
And the U.S. Open?
“I really don't think there's any carryover from here to the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “It's a totally different golf course. The greens will be firm; the rough will be high. Here, I'm trying to hit the ball as far as I can, not worry too much about the rough. Ball's plugging, and we're able to clean it, and so there's really no carryover, other than I just really enjoy this place. I seem to play some of my best golf here, and that's probably about it.”
So now what Mickelson is asking us to do is keep our attention on the Masters and away from the U.S. Open, at least for now.
A victory seemingly would bode confidence, but last year, after Mickelson defeated Justin Thomas in a playoff to win the WGC Mexico title, his game deteriorated. He posted only one top-10 result and missed cuts at the Players and PGA.
Is this a different Mickelson than last year?
At his age, Mickelson is pushing the odds that favor youth over experience. Yet, he has won twice since March. During that same stretch, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have won only once between them.
“I believe that when even today if I play my best, if Tiger [Woods] plays his best, it's good enough to win on any week,” Mickelson said. “And the challenge is, there are so many great young players and so many great players in the game today that it takes our best to win. I just think that both myself and Tiger are going to have a really, really good year this year.”
Let’s see what the golfing gods have to say about that prediction.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli