Fans Champion Mickelson's Cause

Phil Mickelson enjoyed tremendous support from the gallery throughout Thursday's opening round as he began his quest for his first U.S. Open victory. (USGA/John Mummert)

Phil Mickelson enjoyed tremendous support from the gallery throughout Thursday's opening round as he began his quest for his first U.S. Open victory. (USGA/John Mummert)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

By Dave Shedloski

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – When Phil Mickelson birdied his opening hole Thursday morning at Pinehurst No. 2, the par-5 10th, he was among a handful of players who stood under par early in the 114th U.S. Open.

Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and 2013 U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, playing alongside Mickelson and reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, also were at 1 under par. But the name that went immediately to the top of the on-course leader board near the 11th green was that of the popular left-hander, the sentimental favorite, the man with a record six U.S. Open runner-up medals who needs this championship to complete the career grand slam.

That was but one of many signs that Mickelson is overwhelmingly the people’s favorite at Pinehurst No. 2, the course where 15 years earlier he lost by a stroke to Payne Stewart. That was the first of six second-place daggers to his heart, but he keeps coming back for more, convinced that eventually he’ll win the national championship.

Thursday marked his 24th U.S. Open start, and it ended up a mixed bag that resulted in a decent score. With bogeys on two of his last four holes, Mickelson settled for an even-par 70, very much in the hunt at a golf course that wasn’t yielding many low scores and yet was as friendly as it might be all week.

“There was some low scoring out there, some good scoring, I should say, not low,” said Mickelson, the reigning British Open champion, who collected U.S. Open silver medal No. 6 last year at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. “I'm never upset … anything off of par, it's usually a good score. It's a good start. I didn't hurt myself any. I had a chance to get 3-, 4-, 5-under today had I made some makeable opportunities. But I didn't throw anything away on some of the short ones.”

Mickelson birdied both par 5s and had a tap-in birdie at the par-4 13th to offset three bogeys, including those late hiccups at the sixth and eighth holes. He drove the ball immaculately, using his driver nine times to hit a commensurate number of fairways, and he hit 13 greens in regulation. Despite going to an unconventional claw-like putting grip, he needed 31 putts on the day.

“The driver feels really good. I think that’s the club that is going to help me play well this week. And the one club that’s hurting me is the putter,” said Lefty, who ranks 103rd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained-putting compared to sixth a year ago. “I’ve got to get that turned around the next couple of days.”

One thing that Mickelson won’t want to change is the reception he receives with every step he takes. He might not yet be a U.S. Open champion, but he is the champion of this Open and its gallery.

“Yes, we love Phil. How can you not? He’s just the best there is,” said Christine Campbell of Atlanta, who was attending her first U.S. Open with her husband, Larry. Both are Rules officials for the Georgia State Golf Association, and they won their one-day passes in a lottery. There was no doubt who they were going to follow.

“We walked with him a few years ago at the Bob Hope tournament [now the Humana Challenge] and he’s exciting to watch and he really seems to try to acknowledge the people out there watching him,” said Campbell.

The outpouring of support is nothing new to Mickelson, whose birthday, June 16, always lands on or around U.S. Open week.

“The people out here have been wonderful,” he said. “It’s a special place for me, got a lot of great emotions and memories from ’99. To come back and to feel the support is really special and cool.

“If they’re not [trying to will him to victory], I certainly am trying to will it. I love it. I really am appreciative of the support. This is a special week. This is a special tournament, a tournament that means a lot to me. I don’t know if it will be this week or next year or the year after. I do still have 100 percent confidence that I'll be able to break through and get one.”

Mickelson will turn 44 on Monday. He certainly has time to win a U.S. Open. But it’s just that he, like many of his faithful followers, realizes that this might be the perfect time.

“I do feel that this golf course gives me a great chance because I don't feel like I have to be perfect. I can hit a ridiculously bad iron shot, like I did on 2, and I can still get up and down. I get a similar feeling that I get at Augusta where I don't have to be perfect. I can miss shots. I can miss greens and still get up and down. I always have a chance.”

Yes, he always does.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on usga.org and usopen.com.

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