Can Phil Mickelson win the U.S. Open? Just ask his former caddie

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson hits a tee shot during the Charles Schwab Challenge last month.

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The U.S. Open, over its 120 playings, has been held in, yes, the U.S. This year’s event continues that unsurprising trend when Torrey Pines in San Diego hosts. 

But if it were played elsewhere in the world next week, Jim “Bones” Mackay said, Phil Mickelson would also contend. 

Outside of Earth, too. 

“I don’t care if they’re playing on the moon next week, he’s going to come in feeling very bulletproof, in my opinion,” Mackay said this week on a conference call to preview NBC’s coverage of the tournament

As with any golfer, and especially one with the historical volatility of Mickelson, there are both reasons for pessimism and optimism. Let’s start with the latter.

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Torrey is in Mickelson’s home town of San Diego, and prior to 2002, it was not only in his backyard, but it was also his playground. The now-named Farmers Insurance Open is played there each year, and Mickelson has won it three times — 2001, 2001 and 1993. Before 2002, he finished in the top five two other times. 

Then the South Course was redesigned after Mickelson’s win in 2001. And he never won again. At the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey, Mickelson finished 18th. 

It was the same course. And it wasn’t. 

“I don’t, off the top of my head, know what he’s said publicly about the redesign,” said Mackay, an analyst for NBC who also was Mickelson’s longtime caddie. “Certainly he’s an opinionated guy and certainly the course changed pretty dramatically, and to me, in my experience caddying for some of these guys, so much of what they have that is important to them is mojo. And whether it’s Phil at Augusta, Tiger, any one of a number of places, and certainly Phil had that great mojo at Torrey Pines, I think winning two or three times prior to the redo.

“The one thing about Phil is he’s got this incredible memory, and so one of the things he’s going to lose after the redesign are all this knowledge about putts and how the course plays and some real intricacies and nuances in terms of how he’s going to go about approaching his business out there. So I just feel like he probably felt like he lost a bit of the mojo. Again, I can’t speak for what his thoughts were on the redesign. Certainly it became that much tougher in terms of the penalty for missing fairways and shortsiding yourself along those lines.”

Of course, few, if anyone, saw Mickelson winning the PGA Championship three weeks ago. Then he did. At 50, he became the oldest winner of a major championship. This is the reason for optimism. 

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“I think it’s just about momentum, and I do think to a large degree you can throw it out heading into a U.S. Open,” Mackay said of Mickelson’s recent history at Torrey. “It’s one thing to maybe not find the motivation to play there in February when the regular PGA Tour event is played, but let’s face it, he’s got all the runners-up in the U.S. Open. He’s coming off this amazing PGA Championship win. …

“It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he got right in the mix and all those thoughts that he’s got about his performance there of late or about the golf course is going to go right out the window because the bottom line is they’re going to be giving out a trophy on Sunday and he wants it as bad or more than anybody else in the field.”

That 18th in 2008 isn’t all it appears to be either. 

Mickelson, while paired in a world No. 1-2-3 grouping with Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, opened with a three-under 68, then shot 76 and 75 slid down the leaderboard. But that 76 came with a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 13th in which Mickelson, from 30 yards away, spun three consecutive wedges off the green, then three-putted. On top of that, Mackay said Mickelson wasn’t feeling well ahead of the tournament. 

“So I was with him the Saturday and Sunday prior to the Monday of tournament week, if you will. So he was fighting a few things,” Mackay said on the conference call. But, yeah, to your point, I thought he played quite well. Obviously that ball came back to his feet on 13 there a few times, and he made the 9, but it was not a week when he was looking for something within his game. It was there. Certainly, the pairing the first two days with Tiger and Adam Scott puts you kind of front and center, and I think that added an additional element to what he had going on.

“But, again, when I think back to that week, it was certainly a week where he was hitting it where he was looking and had a chance to make some noise.”

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Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor