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Still seeking his first title, Phil Mickelson says U.S. Open remains 'a fun challenge'

In this Feb. 11, 2019, file photo, Phil

In this Feb. 11, 2019, file photo, Phil Mickelson hits from the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif.  Photo Credit: AP/Eric Risberg

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Way back in 1991, when Phil Mickelson played in the U.S. Open as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, he held the gold medal he had won for being low amateur and described the experience this way: “It was fun, but frustrating.”

That is how it has gone in this event ever since, with the possible exception of the “fun” part. Mickelson will be front and center in golf’s focus this week as he has what might be his last good shot at winning the one major tournament that has eluded and tormented him.

There actually has been a bit of fun in it for him. It sure has been an interesting ride for Mickelson in the national championship, including and not limited to his six runner-up finishes (three of them on Long Island). As he said recently during the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, site of two of his second-place efforts in the U.S. Open, “I probably would have thought I would have had one by now. But it’s still a fun challenge for me.”

He has some karma in his pocket this time, given that he has won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am five times, including this past February. His grandfather, Al Santos, was one of the original caddies at Pebble Beach, which opened 100 years ago. Mickelson uses a silver dollar he received from Santos as a good-luck ball marker. Recently, playing a short hole in the nearby backyard of CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz (who picked Mickelson to win this Open), the lefthander made a hole-in-one.

Mickelson will turn 49 Sunday, meaning that a victory would make him the oldest U.S. Open winner of all time. The current mark belongs to Hale Irwin, who was 45 when he won in 1990—earning him a place in the traditional threesome in 1991 with British Open champion Nick Faldo and the young lefthanded golfer from Arizona State who had won the 1990 U.S. Amateur.

History will not be such a friendly companion for Mickelson, though.

There was the heartache of 1999, when Payne Stewart beat him on the final hole and consoled the opponent by congratulating him on impending fatherhood. Fans at Bethpage adopted Mickelson in 2002, serenading him with “Happy Birthday” as he finished three strokes behind Tiger Woods.

Mickelson had momentum on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, but double-bogeyed the 17th hole and finished, you guessed it, second.

His best chance was perhaps in 2006, when he went to the final hole at Winged Foot with a one-stroke lead but hit a wild drive into a hospitality tent. Having been known for his criticism of the U.S. Golf Association and its course setups, that time, he pointed his invective squarely at himself: “I am such an idiot.”

After igniting roars with an eagle on 13 at Bethpage in 2009, he bogeyed Nos. 15 and 17, tying for second. He led heading into Sunday at Merion in 2013, but made three bogeys in the final six holes and lost to Justin Rose.

Compounding all of that is a layer of general wackiness, like the time he flew from Pennsylvania to see his daughter Amanda (the one born in 1999) graduate eighth grade in San Diego, then flew back overnight for the first round. Or the time he made a crude remark (not worth repeating here) about the rough at Oakmont in 2007. Or the time he skipped the 2017 Open at Erin Hills to see Amanda graduate high school, after waiting to the last minute to withdraw in hopes that a storm would postpone the first round.

He apparently would just as soon not dwell on all of that right now. He is not scheduled to be one of many golfers appearing at pre-tournament news conferences. Mickelson, one major shy of the career Grand Slam, said his piece last month at Bethpage: “You know, there’s not much I could do right now that would redefine my career, but there’s one thing I could do, and that would be to win a U.S. Open.”

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