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.

"It's really about the putting," former U.S. Open champion and NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. "I think the putting is a big issue, and that will wear you out. As a golfer, you're playing pretty good, and you can't get that ball in and another guy is getting up and in everywhere. It really wears you out.

"He's got to somehow come up with a different putter or a different technique that makes him feel like he's found the Holy Grail, so to speak, if he's going to have a chance to win, because the way he's been putting, he has got no chance."

Curtis Strange also knows something about focusing so much on one tournament. The two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN analyst put a great deal of effort into the 1990 U.S. Open after becoming the first player since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 to win consecutive U.S. Opens. Strange was going for three in a row -- something that hadn't been done since the turn of the century. He tied for 21st and never won again.

"I admire the fact that Phil's a stand-up guy and he's taking the questions," Strange said. "He talks about it. There's no other option to be honest with you, because it's a story, and it's a big story. Embrace it."

But ... "You don't go to the U.S. Open and find your game. This is a different animal than Augusta National. It would have been more positive if he would have been playing well the last couple months."

Mickelson talks about the situation both realistically and positively. Obviously there are the good memories from Pinehurst, the close call in 1999 with Payne Stewart, the birth of his first child the next day. There are the numerous times in contention at the U.S. Open, which Mickelson views as a positive. And there is his lackluster play this year.

"I do feel that this golf course, this setup, and everything about Pinehurst provides me the best opportunity," he said. "But I haven't had the form this year to get too excited ... I don't want to get overly excited, because the pressure of a U.S. Open and having not been in contention, that's going to be a challenge for me."

In his six runner-up U.S. Open results, one theme has developed: He simply has not finished the tournament well enough to win.

In each instance, Mickelson was playing a par-70 course and never broke par during the final round. Three times he matched par, once he shot 71 and twice 74, including last year when he finished 2 strokes behind Justin Rose. Twice (Shinnecock in '04 and Winged Foot in '06) he made a double-bogey on one of the closing holes to lose. Last year, he made two late bogeys after taking the lead with an eagle at the 10th hole.

Getting past that hurdle would seemingly be of huge importance, but Mickelson first needs to get in that position -- one he's been queried about repeatedly.

Go back to his first tournament of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in October. Among the questions in his pretournament press conference? The U.S. Open. A week later in Shanghai for the HSBC Champions saw the same thing.

Fast forward to January and his first start of 2014. The first question asked of Mickelson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship? The U.S. Open. A week later at Torrey Pines? Again.

The questions died down as Mickelson fought through a back injury, then a muscle injury and prepared for the Masters. But in every tournament since ... the U.S. Open.

And it all started when he birdied the final two holes at Muirfield, shot a final-round 66 to win by three and became an unlikely winner of golf's oldest championship. That gave him three of the four majors in his career, and while never taking his hand off the Claret Jug -- without prompting -- he was looking forward to this very day.

"I think that if I'm able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that's the sign of the complete great player," Mickelson said. "And I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me. But I think that's the sign."

Can you want something too much? We are about to find out.

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