Mickelson's best Open shot is now

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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."

Again, Mickelson was fighting himself on almost every question he answered. The haunting memories of Merion in 2013, of Winged Foot in 2006 and of Shinnecock in 2004 conspired to stop him from imagining the elusive grail in his hands on Sunday night.

"I prefer that he's lurking and coming from behind, 2 or 3 shots off the lead, so he doesn't have the pressure of holding the lead Saturday night," Mickelson's brother, Tim, a successful college player who's now the head coach at Arizona State, said Tuesday by phone. "He'll never go under the radar, but in that case the pressure would be off of him.

"I know when I played and had the lead, sometimes I'd think, 'What am I going to say after I win?' Or, 'What is the trophy going to look like?' I don't know if he's had those thoughts, but when you want something so badly, it's easy to get ahead of yourself, and in golf that's one of the worst things you can do."

Back in his news conference, Phil Mickelson was asked whether he's wanted the U.S. Open too badly and whether that explained his half dozen near misses.

"It's very possible that that's it," he said. "But I've also wanted the Masters and my first major awfully bad. I also wanted a British Open awfully bad. ... I think that this is a week that I've been looking forward to and it would mean a lot to me, but if I get ahead of myself, I won't have a chance."

Much as he did at Bethpage in 2009, when he nearly won in the wake of learning his wife, Amy, had cancer, Mickelson likely will use Pinehurst as something of an escape. He's being investigated as part of a federal insider-trading probe. (He's denied any wrongdoing.) It's another bad swing thought he didn't need.

"I think that as a golfer or an athlete, you have to be able to control your thoughts," Mickelson said. "And anything that's going on off the golf course, or on, you have to be able to refocus."

Added his brother, Tim: "I think Phil's in a pretty great frame of mind, without any negative thoughts in his head. ... He's always had a strong focus on the course, and he can make everything else wait four hours and then he'll address it."

Tim Mickelson said he believes his brother has another six, seven or eight opportunities to win a U.S. Open. They used to talk about the national championship a lot as kids, that and the Masters. They never dreamed much about the kind of breathless comeback Mickelson staged last summer at Muirfield in the Open Championship.

"I would've probably wagered my house or car that Phil would win a U.S. Open before a British," Tim said, "and I'm glad I did not do that."

Phil always comes back for more pain and misery; he's like an NFL cornerback that way. He's tough enough to put himself in position to get hurt at the Open again and again and again, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.

Just about everyone wants him to win here, including the people covering him. Journalists aren't allowed to root for teams or athletes, but they are allowed to root for the best story. Mickelson is the best available story on the board, and it isn't close.

So if he's in contention on the weekend, the Pinehurst crowd will be pulling as hard for him as the Belmont crowd was pulling for California Chrome. Will Mickelson end up confronting the same result? Will he finish his career as a latter-day Sam Snead? Will the U.S. Open be for him what the French Open was for Pete Sampras?

It's going to take more than this week's putting tweak -- to a "claw" grip -- to pull it off. Pinehurst represents his 24th crack at it. "I don't feel that old," he said. "I guess I look it, but I don't feel it."

He is indeed that old, 44 on Monday. If Phil Mickelson wants to win a U.S. Open, he'd better hurry up and win it.

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