PINEHURST, N.C. -- Phil Mickelson was fighting himself so much Tuesday, his pre-Pinehurst news conference felt more like an Ali-Frazier weigh-in. The devil on his left shoulder kept admitting how much a U.S. Open title would mean to him, and the angel on his right kept countering with pleas for tempered expectations.
Yes, finally taking his national championship and becoming the sixth man to win a career Grand Slam would enhance his legacy. No, he doesn't usually perform his best when his best is expected. Yes, doing it here at Pinehurst, the site of his epic 1999 duel with Payne Stewart and the first of his record six runner-up finishes at the Open, would make the breakthrough extra special. No, he wasn't about to burden himself with that kind of pressure.
Mickelson was much like his wild and crazy game -- all over the place -- as he addressed the news media before the only major he hasn't conquered. One breath: "I feel as good about my game today as I have all year." Next breath: "That's not saying a lot."
Truth is, in the middle of a season with no top-10 finishes, Mickelson wants this championship as much as he's wanted any other; he just doesn't want you to know it. He doesn't want to wake up Sunday morning with the lead and absorb all that commentary on how America doesn't want its heart broken all over again.
But chances are, it's now or never for Phil. He adores the golf course ("This place is awesome") and, well, he turns 44 on Monday. Hale Irwin stands as the oldest U.S. Open winner of them all -- he was 45 in 1990 -- and a review of previous Grand Slam winners would suggest that Mickelson is on the clock and that there's a deafening tick-tick-ticking in his ears.
As the most grueling test of the four majors, the U.S. Open is no country for old men. Jack Nicklaus, golf's greatest player, captured his last major title at 46, but his last U.S. Open at 40. Gary Player, whose fitness regimen might've scared off Jack LaLanne, earned his final major victory at 42, but his only U.S. Open title at 29. Gene Sarazen seized his final major victory at 33, but his second and last U.S. Open at 30. Ben Hogan pulled off his 1953 "Hogan Slam," including both Opens, at 40.
Tiger Woods is still chasing history, of course, but it's worth noting that he hasn't won a U.S. Open or any major since 2008, when he was 32. The game's most indestructible force has been physically breaking down, reminding everyone that even in a sport that forbids blindside hits and bodychecking into the boards, nobody lasts forever.
"I'm going to be up front that that's a goal of mine," Mickelson said of completing the Grand Slam. "I'm up front with the fact I would love to do it here at Pinehurst. But I'm not going to put that pressure on me and say that this is the only week or only opportunity. It's probably the best opportunity because the golf course is so short-game oriented, because greens are so repellent, and the shots around the greens play a premium amongst all the Open venues that we have had.
"But I don't want to put the pressure on that this is the only week that I'll have a chance. I think that I'll have a number of great opportunities in the future years, but this is certainly as good a chance as I'll have."