Golf doesn’t recognize indebtedness. There’s no balancing fortune or karmic paybacks.
So it is purely coincidental that Phil Mickelson, after six runner-up finishes in U.S. Opens over the years, is now placed on a patch of craggy terrain that could be the perfect medium for his shot-making creativity.
The course architects would deny the intent, but Chambers Bay was made for Phil Mickelson.
Consider it a birthday present.
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Mickelson turned 45 Tuesday, and was greeted by harmonized salutations on a number of greens. Mickelson always tipped his cap with his politician’s charm.
Here at Chambers Bay, as at venues across the PGA Tour landscape, fans are drawn to Mickelson, entranced by his dramatic failures as much as his successes (five major titles). They love his risky play, whether it results in rewards or not.
Some of his most compelling clunkers have come in his second-place Open finishes, which have stacked up in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2013.
At times he has had the final-round lead only to come undone with wild misfires — not only into the typical obstructions like trees and rough and bunkers, but also into garbage cans and hospitality tents.
After a spectacularly botched finish at Winged Foot in 2006, Mickelson fell on his sword, or at least his balky driver: “I can’t believe I did that. … I’m such an idiot.”
The raw self-assessment endeared him to fans, some of whom shouted support on every hole of his practice round on Tuesday at Chambers Bay.
The course, itself, reminds him of Augusta National and St. Andrews — good company. “(It) allows you to play it less than perfect; you don’t have to hit perfect golf shots here to be able to score and get around.”
In that regard, Chambers Bay is the ideal stage for the Theater of Phil.
He might ricochet a tee ball off a passing train, either by intent or misdirection.
He will, on one hole, cause a lofted wedge shot to descend like a butterfly near the pin, and on another hole, try to exploit a steep undulation with a serpentine putt.
What is guaranteed is that he will attempt some shots nobody has ever tried. And some of them might work.
The green on No. 9, with various lobes and levels, and slopes and sideboards, will give Mickelson creative challenges like few others. Hard and fast, it has to be like trying to putt on a skateboard park.
Tuesday, Mickelson drilled his tee ball on No. 9 inside of 4 feet and putted in for a birdie. But then he began rolling the ball toward hypothetical pin placements, surveying the terrain, envisioning ways of vectoring his putts across the rolling surface.
Imagine the possibilities with Mickelson at or near the lead come Sunday afternoon.
He’s obviously familiar with scoring, as he said, without being perfect. He’s 28th in driving distance but 153rd in driving accuracy. He’s 169th in greens-in-regulation but seventh in birdie average. Every hole is an adventure.
Particularly at U.S. Opens.
But this time, he sees himself on an upswing, carding a 65 on Sunday at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tennessee. And that’s on top of a win and three second places in the past eight majors.
He said he’s happy with his physical conditioning. Chambers Bay will test that. He was noticeably puffing coming up the steep fairway on No. 7, and remarked that this place offers a rugged workout.
The topic of six near-misses in Opens was revisited several times during his press conference. He faced it without hesitation. “I’ve always been somebody who got motivated by failure,” he said. “The fact that I’ve come so close is a motivator to work harder.”
He frankly admitted that a career grand slam is a high priority.
“I still have a huge obstacle, a huge challenge that I’m trying to overcome, and that’s to win a U.S. Open and complete the grand slam,” he said. “It’s not a burden — it’s like an exciting opportunity.”
And Chambers Bay might be the perfect venue to achieve it.