Mickelson aims for storybook ending

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PINEHURST, N.C. -- Almost from the time he raised his arms in triumph at Muirfield and cradled the Claret Jug with his family beside the 18th green, Phil Mickelson had his eye on Pinehurst and the 114th U.S. Open.

And if his gaze toward the only major championship he has not claimed ever wandered, there was usually someone there to ask him about it, the focus back on the prize and a career Grand Slam.

But can this story really have a happy ending?

Mickelson's quest for that elusive U.S. Open title begins early Thursday morning on one of America's most famous courses, Pinehurst No. 2, now hosting the national championship for the third time.

Lefty loves the place, and he speaks glowingly and confidently about his chances this week, and yet he is having the worst start to any season of his 22-year professional career.

Tiger Woods is missing his second consecutive major, but there are 155 other players in the field, some of whom have legitimate chances at victory, perhaps more so than Mickelson.

No. 1-ranked Adam Scott comes to mind, as does Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson. And likely a slew of guys you didn't consider, players who are on nobody's radar, perhaps an unlikely champion.

It has been that kind of year in golf, not one sympathetic to storybook tales. There have been nine first-time winners on the PGA Tour, and 10 players outside of the top 100 in the world at the time prevailed.

Missing has been great play by the game's stars. Jimmy Walker has won three times this season, but he has gone quiet since his victory at Pebble Beach. Patrick Reed proclaimed himself a top 5 player after winning at Doral, and he has a single round in the 60s in the ensuing three months.

Scott and McIlroy won on the same day three weeks ago but also let other great opportunities slip away. Even Watson, who has been the best player this year -- with victories at Riviera and the Masters, two seconds and a third -- failed to convert at the Memorial two weeks ago.

"There's a lot of guys who can put their hand up and try to seize control of the tour or a rivalry or a few guys separating themselves," McIlroy said Wednesday. "You've seen Bubba do it a little bit this season. He's had a few chances to win. Won Riviera, won the Masters. He's accumulated more world ranking points than anybody this season. He's had a great year so far.

"Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson, you saw those guys finish strongly last year. Jordan Spieth who is playing so well. There are a lot of guys who can challenge for that No. 1 spot."

Notice how he didn't mention Mickelson?

Maybe it was an oversight, but there is certainly reason to suggest this is the wrong year to be placing one's hopes on Lefty finally winning the big prize at this tournament.

The lack of top-10 finishes this season on the PGA Tour is alarming. So is his putting, which has flustered him throughout the year and caused him to start using the "claw" grip Sunday on the 11th hole in Memphis and again at Pinehurst.

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