Mickel-slam? That’s the big question heading into the U.S. Open, as Phil Mickelson looks to follow-up his commanding Masters victory by winning the one tournament he wants more than any other. Given Tiger Woods’ record victory the last time the Open was at Pebble, in 2000, he has long been the default favorite, but Mickelson will ride into town with all the momentum and a proven track record that includes three victories at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Mickelson has the best short game in golf and it was on full display at the Masters, as he got up-and-down from all over Georgia and made every putt that mattered.
The biggest weakness in his game has always been his driving accuracy, which has been exposed during a career full of heartbreaking near-misses in the Open, with its narrow fairways and penal rough.
“I love the Open,” Mickelson once said, “it just doesn’t love me.” But this time he comes to Pebble driving the ball straighter and longer than he ever has, thanks to the continued evolution of his swing into a more compact, repeatable action under the watchful eye of Butch Harmon, who was Woods’ swing coach during his unbeatable days in 2000.
Mickelson drove it beautifully during the Masters, and after the victory his longtime caddie Jim Mackay said, “His work with Butch went to a different level this week. He learned some things this week that I think are going to pay big dividends down the road.”
Woods remains the Open’s biggest wild card. He is not the same person or player he used to be, for better and for worse. His competitive fire has not been diminished by the tabloid storm that has raged around him ever since his serial infidelities became public late last year. The evidence was the way he brawled with Augusta National for every stroke en route to a tie for 4th in his season debut at the Masters.
But as Tiger tries to piece together his life, it is unknown if he can retain the single-minded focus that has led to his unparalleled successes, which include three U.S. Open victories.
Steve Stricker is proof that nice guys don’t finish first, at least in the major championships. The soft-spoken, shy Wisconsin native may be golf ‘s most beloved boy-next door, but he has never displayed the requisite toughness to come through in the sport’s most grueling examinations. Stricker has spent the last year plus in the top three in the World Ranking thanks to a precise long game and perhaps golf ‘s purest putting stroke. On paper, he has the perfect game to win an Open. But at 43 years old, time is running out.
Sharing the good news/bad news title of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major is England’s Lee Westwood. This amiable chap has finished third, tied for third and second in his last three majors, which is proof of both his rock solid all around game and his inability to make the crucial putts that are the difference between everlasting glory and just another bloated payday.
Many of the usual Open favorites—Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk among them—are not part of the conversation as late in their careers their nerves have become frayed and putting strokes have gotten shaky.
If you’re looking for a fresh face, how about Hunter Mahan? The talented 28 year old is one of the best drivers of the golf ball in existence, and solid play at recent Ryder and Presidents Cups plus a spirited performance at this year’s Masters has him looking ready to start winning big-time tournaments.
They don’t get any bigger than a U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach.
The 2010 U.S. Open Championship is held at Pebble Beach, June 14-20. For more information, go to www.pebblebeach.com.