PINEHURST, N.C. – No one expected Phil Mickelson to win last year's British Open championship. It's not the style of course or game that has favoured the lefthander.
Yet win he did.
By contrast, everyone is expecting Mickelson to win this week, in the championship he wants to win more than any other and has broken his heart six times.
Golf fair? Golf understandable? Not when it involves Lefty.
Here at Pinehurst, Mickelson will try one more time to not only break through and win the tournament he wants most, but also to join that exclusive club of career grand slam winners that has just five members.
"It's a career goal of mine to win all four majors," Mickelson admitted. "I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time. It shows that they have a complete game. If I'm able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently."
It wasn't that long ago that Mickelson had no majors and everyone wondered if he'd ever get his first. And certainly last year, very few were predicting he'd win the Open Championship.
Now he's on the edge of greatness, but that edge is a wide chasm he must get across.
For the first time since 2003, Mickelson comes into the Open without a victory. Worse than that, he hasn't even managed a top-10 finish. Still, he remains relatively optimistic.
"I feel as good about my game today as I have all year," he stated. "It's not saying a lot, because I haven't played well all year, but last week was a good week for me. I started to slowly put it together."
Last week was a tie for 11th spot at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and a far cry from what he wants here.
The weak link in his game this year has clearly been his putting. He's ranked 103rd in Strokes Gained –Putting. A year ago, he finished the year in sixth. Things have gone so poorly on the greens that this week, Mickelson has decided to change things up after conferring with putting coach Dave Stockton.
"The greens here are quick," Mickelson stated, "and so I'm actually going to go back to the claw grip this week in an effort to have a little bit lighter grip pressure and create a softer roll so that I get some of the hit out of it. I was running them way by last week and by taking my bottom hand off the putter, it eliminates some that hit."
Of course it wouldn't be a major if Phil wasn't taking some sort of risk. Two drivers. No drivers. Phrankenwood. Driver when he should hit three-wood. Sometimes the moves pay off, other times he slaps his head and scolds himself.
And he waits for another year, another chance.
After six silver medals, Mickelson says he tries not to look at what might be possible, what it would be like to raise the trophy he wants more than any other on Sunday evening. He knows the disappointment too well. But he is, after all, only human.
"I try not to, because I don't want to get ahead of myself," he said. "But it's only natural that it's going to. Occasionally I'll catch myself, but I really try not to, because I really just want to focus on what I need to do to get ready for Thursday. If I can do that, hopefully I'll give myself a chance on the weekend. But when I jump ahead, that never really works out good, at least in the past . . . six times."
This will be Mickelson's 24th attempt at winning the U.S. Open and he believes it may be his best. Of course he said something like that last year, too. And the year before. If nothing else, Phil is the eternal optimist. But this course might just prove him right.
Pinehurst No. 2 is tailored to a game such as Phil's – or at least Phil's when he's on. He proved that back in 1999 although the last time around, in 2005, he was a non-factor in a tie for 33rd.
"This place is awesome," he gushed. "It is just a wonderful site. This is the first -- well I really believe that this week is testing a player's entire game. Because it forces you to make decisions, make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green, and utilize your short game to save strokes. There's no luck involved with the hack-it-out rough that sometimes we have around the greens. It's just a wonderful test that is, I think, the best test I've seen to identify the best player."
Whether Mickelson can be the best player this week is the question a lot of people are asking. It's also a question he's asking himself. And one he's hoping he can finally answer.