For devoted followers of the PGA Tour, this year has been a bit of a snooze. Week after week, it seems, some proficient technician safely navigates the back nine and holds on to win by two or three strokes. The names on the top of leader boards - Henley, Hadley, Senden, Bowditch, Noh, and Todd - have rarely been uttered in households that don't have them on the mortgage. The announcers commend their steady play, while the rest of us wish they’d pull one into the trees.
Even the Masters, that annual orgy of agony and anger, became a one-man show as Bubba Watson overpowered the course and everybody else took Sunday off. What that tournament lacked was Phil. (Well, Tiger too, of course, but that’s another story.) Mickelson’s uneven play and uncharacteristically twitchy putting left him one stroke outside the cut line and home for the weekend. Despite flashes of the old swashbuckling style, that’s basically been Phil’s story all year. He hasn’t notched a top-10 finish.
Now Lefty is headed to the U.S. Open, the tournament that has bedeviled him his whole career. This isn't just the major Phil hasn't won, it's the major that has found so many ways to defeat him. The mild-mannered San Diegan has come in second six times, beginning with his runner-up finish in 1999 at the site of this year's tourney, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. Phil enters a tournament notorious for brutal putting conditions (in 2004, Phil three-putted the 17th at Shinnecock from five feet to lose the Open to RetiefGoosen), so lost with his stroke that he’s going to use the unorthodox claw grip for the first time. Whether he succeeds or fails - that charge at the British Open was absolutely mesmerizing - it's going to make for great television.
The PGA needs that this week. So does NBC. So do we.
Here's why he just might win:
• He's got three in the bag. Sure, he has a lot of U.S. Open baggage. But the surprise win at the British last year, which even he didn’t think he’d ever win, provided Phil with the third leg of the career Grand Slam, putting him in the exclusive historical company of players, including Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson, who couldn’t get the fourth. Now he figures he has four or five more legitimate tries at the career grand slam. So in a way, the pressure is off somewhat.
• He's heating up. He hasn’t played well so far this season, but he did have his best finish last week, and Phil’s been known to play tournaments before majors, not to win, but to practice the shots he’ll need the following week.
• He won't be sweating the Feds. The insider-trading investigation against seems like it won’t hold water, with some suggesting the whole thing was a case of investigators grandstanding and trying to embarrass famous investors. (Why, for instance, did they choose to track him down in the middle of a high-profile golf tournament after two or three years?) He should have peace of mind inside the ropes.
• 15 years is enough. There are plenty of great players and stories this week. Bubba has been playing great, and he'll be looking for his second straight major. Rory McIlroy will be trying to regain his own major form. But here's the thing: Rory was 10 the last time Phil finished second at Pinehurst. Phil's narrative is epic in scope, and it needs an epic conclusion.
Photos by Toby Melville / Landov