Phil Mickelson believes winning the US Open to complete the career grand slam is the only thing which can redefine his career, but whether it would restore his reputation remains up for debate.
While Brooks Koepka won a second consecutive title and Tommy Fleetwood equalled the lowest score in tournament history at Shinnecock Hills last year, the unwelcome abiding memory was of Mickelson’s antics during the third round.
The five-time major winner, who was already four over par for the day on his 48th birthday, badly overhit a putt on the 13th hole which was set to roll off the parched green.
However, Mickelson prevented that happening by running after the ball and hitting it while it was still rolling, a breach of rule 14-5 which incurs a two-shot penalty.
Such a flagrant and deliberate act was met with gasps of surprise in the media centre and fierce criticism from several quarters, former US PGA champion Steve Elkington among those calling for Mickelson to be disqualified and accusing him of “trying to embarrass the USGA.”
David Fay said on Fox Sports he would have “lobbied for disqualification” if a similar incident had occurred while he was executive director of the USGA, adding: “I think the current language of [rule] 14-5 is too friendly.”
Mickelson was unrepentant in the immediate aftermath, claiming he was using the rules to his advantage and telling his critics to “toughen up”, although a few days later he sent a message to a handful of American journalists offering his apologies.
Nevertheless, the feeling lingered that Mickelson had been sending a message to the USGA over the way they set up courses for the US Open, an event where he has finished runner-up a record six times.
The last of those came at Merion in 2013, a month before he won the Open Championship at Muirfield to complete the third leg of a career grand slam which has only been achieved by Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
His attempts to join golf’s most exclusive club have produced a best finish of 28th – at Pinehurst in 2014 – and he even opted to miss the 2017 US Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, but this year’s venue could hardly offer Mickelson a better chance of victory.
A three-shot victory over England’s Paul Casey in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am earlier this season was Mickelson’s fifth in the event and he was also runner-up in 2016 and 2018, although the course will be set up far tougher in June that it was in February.
“I do think about what I have to do to win a US Open and it’s getting increasingly difficult,” Mickelson said. “But we’re on a golf course at Pebble where you really don’t need to hit a lot of drivers. So it gives me a chance. It lessens my weakness, which is hitting fairways.
“And you need to putt poa annua greens very well with a lot of break, which is something I’ve done well.”
Standing in Mickelson’s way of course will be another 155 players, most notably Masters champion Woods and reigning champion Koepka, who is trying to become only the second player ever to win three straight US Open titles.
Koepka’s successful title defence in last month’s US PGA at Bethpage made it four major victories in his last eight appearances and the big-hitting American was also joint second behind Woods at Augusta.
Woods did not play competitively between the Masters and the US PGA, which has shifted in the calendar from August to May, meaning a missed cut at Bethpage did not come as a big surprise.
But the 15-time major winner famously won by a record 15 shots in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach and made sure his game was sharp by entering the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
All signs point to a thrilling third major of the season and maybe, just maybe, Mickelson finally lifting the US Open trophy on his 49th birthday.