2004: U.S. Open - Open Door

If Phil Mickelson’s new green Masters jacket had an odometer on the lapel for all the miles it has traveled, the garment probably would be on its fifth oil change by now.

Having terminated The Streak, the man deserved to celebrate. So, after Mickelson’s highly documented 0-for-46 came crashing down with an emotional, punctuating, 72nd-hole birdie putt at Augusta National, he kicked off one of golf’s longest victory laps. He delivered that 10,000-megawatt devilish Eddie Haskell smile into living rooms across America, sitting on guest couches next to Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Looking back, Mickelson’s greatest performance of all had flown beneath the radar. For too long, Mickelson in the majors had been Tom Cruise’s reckless Maverick from “Top Gun,” the fighter pilot previously comfortable only when flying “mach 2 with your hair on fire.” Amid a new dawn’s genre of reality TV, Mickelson, at age 34, has checked in with a new role.

Call it “Extreme Makeover.”

When Mickelson’s steel spikes penetrate the rock-firm turf at Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open, his feet no longer will have to carry the weight of being the Best Player Never to Win a Major. He is genuinely looking forward to the U.S. Open.

Want to know the truth? He should be.

Tiger Woods and Mickelson seemingly have switched styles, and now it’s Woods who must stand on the tees looking down Shinnecock’s trim fairways wondering where his driver will lead him. In a stat that garners little air time, No. 2 Vijay Singh, as well as he’s played everywhere else, now has gone winless in 16 major starts since the 2000 Masters. Defending champion Jim Furyk, whose game and grit are perfect complements to the Open, has a bum wrist. And Ernie Els is still shaking the disappointment of Mickelson stealing away the jacket he’d been sizing at the Masters. Mickelson comes in with as much conviction as anyone.

“I’m looking forward to the U.S. Open this year . . . because I have a lot of confidence now, a lot of belief that I can break through and win the big tournaments,” Mickelson said.

“I feel like because I’m driving the ball in play, I’m able to do better playing the more penalizing courses like at Shinnecock, where if you miss the fairway, the rough is so severe it’s tough to advance it. I feel like that instead of being a disadvantage, it’s becoming an advantage, and I can’t wait to get up to New York and play.”

The majorless Mickelson was the people’s choice the last time the Open visited Long Island, two years ago at Bethpage Black. Crowds pulled hard for him, but Woods was simply too much, too good, too solid to permit anyone to make a Sunday run. Woods collected his seventh major in 11 starts; Mickelson, the runner-up at his national championship for the second time in four years, collected a little more Open momentum.

People forget that a young, swashbuckling Mickelson was a big factor nine years ago at the U.S. Open, when it last was staged at Shinnecock.

Playing his third Open as a pro, Mickelson tied for fourth, four shots behind plucky champion Corey Pavin. He would have been closer had he not butchered the 544-yard, par-5 16th all week. Despite being one of the most powerful players in the field, Mickelson never even managed a par on the hole.

In the opening round, he was 5 under, on track for a course record, when he was derailed by a disastrous 7 at 16, brought about after he had to gouge one shot out of the left rough and eventually three-putted from 18 feet. He bogeyed the hole in Rounds 2-3, then doubled it again Sunday to fall from contention, laying up into the hay on his second shot, missing the green left with his third and flopping a pitch short of the green.

“I tried to make birdies there and ended up making bogeys and doubles,” Mickelson said. “I’m going to approach it differently, like I did 15 at Augusta this year. I’m going to try to scatter one or two birdies in there rather than approach it as a must-birdie hole.”

At Augusta, he changed his approach on a hole he previously had played aggressively (No. 15) and took the big number out of play. On a relatively easy par 5, he walked away with four pars.

In preparation for Shinnecock, just as he did at Augusta, Mickelson planned to tour the course two days with long game instructor Rick Smith and another with short game instructor Dave Pelz. The mission was to study the layout, trying to identify opportunities where he might save one stroke here, another there. There are places at Shinnecock where, if any player ventures, the inevitability of bogey awaits. The focus for Mickelson is on finding places where he can miss a green and still have a chance to walk away with par.

“I give Phil tremendous accolades,” said Pelz. “I think he’s really grown as a player.

Just look at how many times he’s been in contention already this year. I think he has added shots and become a more rounded player in trying higher percentage shots. He’ll never be a conservative player, but he’s not taking some of the chances he once took, and now he’s in good position on Sunday. You can’t win the tournament Thursday and Friday, but you can sure lose it.”

In addition to a more focused cerebral approach, Mickelson can point to one other huge improvement in his game. He has tamed his driver. He has sacrificed a few yards and gone to hitting a soft cut, and his misses now are closer to the fairway – not 50 yards away behind some concession stand.

A year after he endured his worst season as a pro, Mickelson’s ball-striking strides have been remarkable. Though he had dropped from third to 23rd in driving distance heading into the Memorial, giving up more than 10 yards (partly because he switched back from the Titleist Pro V1x to the softer ProV1), he had hit 64.1 percent of his fairways (compared with 49 percent in 2003).

He jokes that he never knew the game was so easy from the fairway. Through the Memorial, Mickelson ranked second on Tour in greens in regulation (71.3 percent) one year after he ranked 107th.

Though his putting has remained about the same (14th last season, 13th in ’04), he has shaved more than a stroke off his scoring average (69.06), which leads the Tour.

“A guy has got to want to change,” said Smith. “Phil was very receptive to what needed to change. And he was willing to put the time and energy in it. What more can you ask for than a guy who is willing to change?”

So Mickelson heads to Shinnecock better armed than ever. After clearing the hurdle of winning his first major, he believes a second – and even a third – may be easier to collect. But he stops before getting too far ahead of himself.

“It’s hard for me to say,” said Mickelson. “I haven’t played in one (having won a major).”

Shinnecock awaits. And Mickelson can’t wait to get started.

Funny what a single green jacket can do for a guy.

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