Is this finally Lefty’s U.S. Open moment?
Long gone is Phil Mickelson’s label of best player to have never won a Major. Three Green Jackets and a PGA Championship have squarely secured his legacy as the best player of his generation not named Tiger.
No. 2 is safe.
But until he wins the tournament that has teased and tormented him — the U.S. National Championship that has seen him double bogey and poor putt his way to second place an astonishing five times — there will be a monster void in his trophy case.
With the changing landscape in golf and his second-place standing heading into Saturday, there couldn’t be a better time for him to slay his U.S. Open demons.
I’ve never pulled for Phil. His reckless approach and affinity for making mistakes in the biggest moments have always been less endearing and more gag-inducing.
I’m a Tiger man. Or at least I was. Outside of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods is the best personification of greatness being great my generation of sports fan has seen.
Following Tiger and Rocco at Torrey Pines on an unforgettable Monday in 2008 is the greatest thrill I’ve had as a sports fan. I witnessed first-hand possibly the greatest golfer ever scrap through 19 holes for his career-defining moment.
I’m not a frontrunner, but Phil was always a sideshow — a gambler who entertained, but never really commanded respect.
But that paradigm is shifting.
With Tiger’s transgressions, it’s become almost impossible to pull for him. Playing in his second Major tournament since last Thanksgiving’s collision with a fire hydrant, Woods has become the sideshow. Can he focus for 72 holes — or 36 for that matter? Is he in good enough physical shape to play at the highest level? Does any of it matter since he’s by all accounts a target of scorn and disdain?
And since that November day, Phil has added another Major to his resume with his third win at Augusta. Now the door is wide open. With a win at Pebble Beach, Phil will not only take over the official title of world’s No. 1 golfer, a title Woods has held for 262 weeks. But the public perception will be that Phil, not Tiger, is actually is the best golfer in the world.
What seemed unfathomable just eight months ago has become reality.
Mickelson struggled on Thursday with a 75 at a tough-as-nails Pebble Beach setup that didn’t cede a score better than 69.
But Friday was Phil at his best. He roared out to five birdies in his first eight holes and finished his first nine holes with a 31 — the best nine-hole score of his career at the U.S. Open. A nearly flawless round from there (one birdie, one bogey) saw Mickelson (-1) end the day with a 66, two strokes behind leader Graeme McDowell (-3) heading into Saturday.
“I’m in a good spot,” Mickelson told ESPN after Friday’s round. “I don’t look at the leaderboard. I don’t look at other players. I look at par.”
It’s the right approach for golf’s toughest test.
Meanwhile Tiger sits seven strokes off the lead at four-over. And I’m not sure if I care what he does on Saturday.
Now the question becomes a familiar one: What Phil will we see on Saturday and Sunday? Will he choke another chance away or gamble and win like he did with his magnificent shot out of the Augusta pines on Masters Sunday?
It’s a chance for Mickelson to shine with the stakes as high as they’ve ever been.
One thing’s for sure. For the first time, I’ll be pulling for Phil this weekend.
Jason Owens is the SDNN sports editor. email: jason.owens(at)sdnn.com