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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2001

U.S. Open is perfect opportunity for Mickelson to land big one

TULSA, Okla. - So, here we are again. Sunday morning at a major golf championship.

As you read this, the sun is peeking through the Ozarks, ready to burn the dew off the fairways, and the ever-present wind off the plains still bears a cooling breeze.

Yet, when Phil Mickelson steps onto the veranda to enjoy his morning coffee, he knows it soon will be an inferno. He is about to step into a blast furnace, the final round of the U.S. Open at Southern Hills. Just two shots behind, 18 holes to play. Only five guys to leapfrog.

In the back of his mind, pressing against all the positive thoughts, is the nagging knowledge that he has yet to prove, over the first decade of his career, that he can step into the sauna without suffering a meltdown. He is well aware that, in the lexicon of Harry Truman, he has been known to high-tail it out of the kitchen.

He has, to date, a dozen top-10 finishes in major championships. And no victories.

He is, as we writers are wont to write, the best golfer never to win a major title.

Mickelson is a tremendously gifted player, cocky and creative, the game's foremost magician with a wedge in his hands. He ranks second in PGA Tour history behind Tiger Woods for most victories during their 20s. Mickelson, who turned 31 yesterday, posted 16 wins prior to his 30th birthday and has since added two more.

But none of them have come with green jackets or Claret jugs, not with the eyes of the world watching as he comes down the stretch on courses with greens as soft as helipads, fairways narrowed to rumors, rough up around his ankles, with cups cut by the devil himself.

So far, his are fish stories. The big ones that got away.

Mickelson is No. 2 in the world rankings and is second on the tour money list, but he has that major flaw, that propensity for tumbling out of the lead on Sundays.

He was up with three holes to play in the `99 Open at Pinehurst. That's the one where his pretty wife, Amy, was great with their first baby. He said that if childbirth was imminent, he would leave the tournament, regardless of his standing. The joke was that Phil, facing the parched-throat pressure of the back nine, would be far more likely to go into labor.

So he bogeyed No. 16, pulled an eight-footer for birdie at 17 and watched helplessly as the late Payne Stewart made a dramatic, 25-foot par putt on the final hole to avert a playoff.

Fast forward to this spring's Masters, where Mickelson owned the 54-hole lead and was bidding to become the first player in Augusta history to log four rounds in the 60s. He went out in the last group with Woods and was just one shot in arrears when he mis-hit his approach shot onto the top shelf of the green at No. 16 and three-jacked it for bogey, his fourth of the round.

Mickelson is such a nice guy, so sincere with that soft voice and aw-shucks grin and you just know he used to brown-nose the teachers. But he gets this lost, hang-dog look on his face when things unravel.

You watch him at your Colonials and Bay Hills and Bell Souths, where the fairways are wide and roughs modest and the challenge is “how long can you go,” and Phil can get down and dirty with the best of them. Put him at Augusta National or at a U.S. or British Open venue, where the game is course management, emotional control, nerve and toughness and, well, so far, no guts and no glory.

That's what Phil Mickelson is thinking over his morning coffee. He's also thinking that this is the day it all can change. Tiger is far in his rearview mirror. The names on the board aren't so scary. A Retief here, a Rocco there. He has climbed this mountain before only to tumble short of the summit. Now, it's time to plant the flag.

A golfer cannot be called a great champion until he has won a major. Today, Phil Mickelson bids for greatness one more time.

Dave Hackenberg is a Blade sports writer.

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