Phil Mickelson looking for a fourth

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PINEHURST, N.C. -- The quest has endured for so long, through years of near misses and frustrating finishes, that the beeper was a popular communication mode when it all began, right here.

Phil Mickelson nearly won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 but was foiled by the late Payne Stewart, who made three big putts over the closing holes to deny Lefty his first major championship and begin an odyssey that has wound its way back to where it started as the tournament returns to the North Carolina sandhills.

As it turned out, had Stewart missed one of those putts, he and Mickelson would have contested an 18-hole playoff -- on the day Amanda Mickelson was born.

Which brings us to the beeper.

Mickelson's wife, Amy, was pregnant with the couple's first child and due any day. Mickelson left his Arizona home with every intention of heading right back if his wife went into labor.

"I walked the course on Monday, and at that point I didn't think he was coming," Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson's long-time caddie, said. "And then he came. He gives me the beeper when he gets out of the car, and he very matter-of-factly told me, 'I don't care when this thing goes off -- you tell me -- 18th tee on Sunday, first tee on Thursday.'

"He was flat-out going to go home. One hundred percent."

But Mickelson played -- and played well -- and finished a shot behind Stewart, who saved par from 15 feet on the final green to win. It was the first of a record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open for Lefty.

In 2002 at Bethpage Black, Mickelson could never overtake Tiger Woods, who led from start to finish. In 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson was one of just two players to finish under par, but a crushing double-bogey late (coupled with Retief Goosen's extraordinary putting) meant a 2-shot defeat.

In 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson led by one on the 18th tee, only to hit his drive off a corporate hospitality tent, which lead to a double-bogey and 1-stroke loss to Geoff Ogivly. In 2009 at Bethpage Black, a month after Amy's cancer diagnosis, Mickelson couldn't overtake Lucas Glover, who made just one birdie during a Monday finish.

And then there was last year at Merion. That might have been the worst of all. Certainly it's a candidate for toughest defeat. Mickelson was the third-round leader and seemed poised to finally prevail when he holed out for eagle on the 10th hole. But then he made two bogeys before getting to the 18th hole, where, to tie Justin Rose, he needed a birdie on a hole that not yielded one all weekend.

"Heartbreak," Mickelson said afterward. "This is tough to swallow after coming so close. This was my best chance of all of them. I was playing well. I had a golf course I really liked that I could play aggressive on a number of holes. I felt like this was as good an opportunity I could ask for, and to not get it ... it hurts."

Which made his Open Championship victory a month later at Muirfield all the more remarkable.

The Open Championship had always been the major Mickelson was least likely to win. His record was poor, and rebounding from the U.S. Open would, seemingly, be difficult. Mickelson admitted he had spent a few days in bed, depressed.

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