PINEHURST, N.C. - On a scale of 1 to 10, Phil Mickelson's enthusiasm was about a 24 Tuesday. Anyway, that is the number of U.S. Opens in which he will have played by Thursday. After all that time without a victory, he still sounded as if he believes he has major mojo this week.
"This place is awesome,'' he said of Pinehurst No. 2, the renovated site for the Open, the only major he has yet to win. That was how he began his news conference, and he kept walking on clouds of optimism from there.
You'd never know from his smile that he has had six degrees of heartache at the U.S. Open, six finishes in second or tied for second, starting right here in 1999, and often in wrenching fashion. Nor could you tell that at the Memorial Tournament last month, he was greeted after a round by FBI agents who questioned him as part of an insider trading investigation. Mickelson has made it clear in recent weeks that he will not speak about that situation, other than saying he has done nothing wrong.
But he did address it indirectly, when he was asked about how he focuses inside the gallery ropes while life can get stormy off the course.
"I think that as a golfer or an athlete, you have to be able to control your thoughts,'' he said. "When your mind starts to wander, and what will happen is your mind will start to wander on shots [on which] the ball is going where you don't want it to go. Whether it's outside activities or what's going on, on the course, you've got to be able to control your thoughts and be able to visualize what you want to have happen on just the shot at hand.''
So after a spirited practice round with younger players, including 20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth, Mickelson was effusive. "I feel as good about my game today as I have all year,'' he said. "It's not saying a lot.''
He nonetheless spoke about how he likes the new look of the old Pinehurst course, with its demand for creative recovery shots from sandy waste areas, and its emphasis on the short game. He spoke glowingly of the latter despite the putting woes that have caused him to use an unconventional "claw'' grip on his putter this week.
Nor did Mickelson hold back in hoping that it rains because that would make chipping and putting harder for everyone. "Of those six second-place finishes, five of them, it rained. So I'm pulling for rain,'' he said, adding that he sees positives in the runner-up efforts because he gave himself opportunities. "And I believe that I'll have more opportunities.''
"I enjoy the spirit in which he plays the game, how free he is out there,'' said Justin Rose, who beat Mickelson in a pivotal singles match at the 2012 Ryder Cup and edged him for the Open title at Merion last year and will play with him Thursday and Friday in the traditional grouping of U.S. and British Open and U.S. Amateur champions. "He's got a great temperament for the game. Nothing seems to faze him.''
Mickelson acknowledged that he has to guard against getting too keyed up because he wants the U.S. Open so dearly. "But I've also wanted the Masters and my first major awfully bad,'' he said. "I also wanted a British Open awfully bad.''
Besides, he added, "I tend to play better . . . when nobody really expects it.''