Once stuck, Mickelson has major breakthrough

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MAMARONECK, N.Y.-- Phil Mickelson stood on the edge of the seventh green during an early round of U.S. Open play. He'd just made birdie and just retrieved his ball from the cup.

The crowd here, not unlike those at every other course Mickelson visits these days, had already adopted Lefty as its own. It clapped and whistled and cheered the birdie putt. And then just as the noise died down, there was one final shout from the gallery.

"Take that, Tiger!" Mickelson heard it and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a chuckle. He doesn't acknowledge any type of rivalry between the tour's two most popular players; doesn't even entertain such questions. But heading into today's final round, Mickelson - the guy who couldn't win the big one - has very much evolved into The Big One in the world of golf.

Through three rounds, he has a share of the U.S. Open lead along with co-leader Kenneth Ferrie. Mickelson is going for his third straight win in a major, after winning the PGA Championship last August and his second Masters two months ago.

It wasn't that long ago that you'd see Mickelson in contention on a Sunday and concede the trophy to someone else. After all, he'd finished in either second or third eight times before he finally won his first major. (He took home a runner-up sash here at the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and 2004.)

Today he embarks on something with both historic and symbolic significance.

Mickelson would be the second golfer in the past 50 years to win three consecutive majors. The other, of course, is Tiger Woods. The past three days have illustrated the current difference in these two. Woods missed the cut and is presumably enjoying some Florida sun today. His left-handed counterpart is setting out to coin the phrase "Mickelslam."

Regardless of what the world rankings say - Tiger No. 1, Phil No. 2 - Mickelson is poised to assume the title of best golfer in the world, a suggestion he doesn't even want to acknowledge.

"[Tiger] has done it for years and years and years, the 10 years he's been out here," Mickelson said. "I've had some recent success, and it's been a lot of fun. You're jumping ahead a little bit."

Actually, declaring Mickelson the game's best after the PGA Championship or even after his second Masters win would've been premature. Doing it today would be fair and deserving.

Don't go thinking Mickelson has solely distinguished himself over the past 54 holes of golf. It was what he did over the previous two months that sets him apart.

No golfer wanted this U.S. Open more than Mickelson, which is why he began plotting his path to victory immediately after he won that second green jacket. He scouted this difficult Winged Foot Golf Club course more thoroughly than anyone else. In fact, many are suggesting that no man has ever studied a course so closely before a major.

Mickelson has visited three times in the past couple of months, staying once for five days. It's no wonder I overheard one man in the gallery last week say, "Phil's the closest we have to a hometown hero right now."

The locals here have noticed. The prince of SoCal is being treated like the king of New York. "There have been a couple pizza joints and ice cream joints that have seen me," Mickelson says.

Yesterday, we saw that legwork pay off. Mickelson didn't stalk the leaders like some sort of tiger. Instead, he followed his notes and stuck to his game plan.

"I have notes on every shot from drive to iron to putt, chip," he said. "This golf course has a lot of nuances, a lot of idiosyncrasies."

After trailing by five strokes, Mickelson started the back nine with four straight pars. From there, he didn't have to chase the lead; it came to him.

Jim Furyk dropped a double-bogey on the 10th hole. Ian Poulter, with whom Mickelson was tied at the turn, bogeyed No. 14 and double-bogeyed 18. Graeme McDowell bogeyed Nos. 13 and 14. Geoff Ogilvy dropped bogeys on Nos. 13 and 14. And Padraig Harrington bogeyed Nos. 13 and 15.

Kenneth Ferrie and Steve Stricker were under par on the front and each sat at 1-over midway through the back nine. Stricker posted a double bogey on No. 14, and before you knew it, Mickelson was sitting alone in second place. He was in the clubhouse when Ferrie badly missed a 6-foot putt for par on 18. The miss created the tie atop the leader board.

"Obviously patience is very key in this tournament," said Mickelson, one of only two players to shoot under par yesterday. "And I think what it shows is that a lot of pars is the same as a birdie or two."

What it shows is that Mickelson, who once made his name by pressing and failing, suddenly knows how to win like few in the game today. You would have never heard the Mickelson of old suggesting that playing conservative was the way to go. That Mickelson gambled, took risky shots, missed clutch putts.

That Mickelson lost on Sundays.

This one is different. This one knows how to win on the final day of a tournament. This one has already played today's round in his head over and over these past several weeks.

This one has that special something that until recently, only Tiger seemed to understand. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

U.S. Open leader board

The leaders ...

Phil Mickelson 70-73-69-212

Kenneth Ferrie 71-70-71-212

... and selected followers

Geoff Ogilvy 71-70-72-213

Vijay Singh 71-74-70-215

Colin Montgomerie 69-71-75-215

Steve Stricker 70-69-76-215

Fred Couples 73-74-71-218

[Complete scores, PG 9D]

Points after -- Rick Maese

LEARNING FROM BEN -- To be safe, I did wear a helmet while writing this column. I'm hoping Peter Schmuck starts wearing one, too. Not because I'm worried about safety; we're just getting tired of looking at him.

WORLD CUP FEVER -- The World Cup certainly spawns a sense of nationalism. With that in mind, on my Sun blog, I've been arbitrarily tallying the performances of the different nations at this year's U.S. Open. Heading into today's final round, the United States is in first place with three of the top 11 golfers. The United Kingdom is at No. 2 and Australia comes in at 3. Not surprisingly, the nation of Fiji is still in good position to win the whole thing, despite a relative dearth of team members.

I HEART NY -- You want to know what happens when you hold a major golf tournament in New York? Here is what I noticed:

A fan briskly walking along the fourth fairway, shaped like an ice cream cone and wearing only a tight pair of shorts. This is not what they meant by skins game.

As Tiger Woods approached the 18th green Friday - his final green of the U.S. Open - one fan in the gallery proudly proclaimed: "JETS RULE!"

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