Halfway home, Phil Mickelson is either going to add to his long list of U.S. Open gag-jobs or he’s finally going to hoist the coveted trophy on the 18th green of America’s greatest public golfing facility.
I’ll go with hoisting the trophy.
This time around, I can’t see Mickelson handing over the title the way he’s done before.
This time, Phil Mickelson is going to win the U.S. Open championship.
That said, a lot of golf remains between now and late Sunday afternoon.
But Mickelson gave all who picked him to win reason to smile on Friday with a superb second-round 66 that included a torrid opening nine holes where he posted 31 to go from “needs a good round to make the cut” to “might lead after round two”.
He didn’t leapfrog Graeme McDowell by day’s end, but he gave notice to everyone watching…and playing: to win this U.S. Open, you’ll have to beat Phil Mickelson.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods continues to lag behind, befuddled by the Pebble Beach greens and unable to hit the ball close enough on the short holes to give himself any reasonable looks at birdie.
Woods’ swing looks more reliable than earlier in the year, but his putting remains a mystery. If you want to know the state of mind of Tiger and Phil, all you have to do is read and digest their comments after Thursday’s round one, where both players struggled on the greens and shot +3 (Tiger) and +4 (Phil) to kick-off their U.S. Open quest in not-so-grand fashion.
Woods said: “These greens…they’re just awful. The poa annua is really kicking in. It’s hard to make a putt when the ball is bouncing all over the place.”
Mickelson said: “I didn’t putt very well. Something’s not right and I need to work on it before Friday, which I will do. I’m just not starting the ball on line the way I would like.”
Blame the greens.
Or blame yourself.
Tiger blamed the greens. And since I’ve played A LOT of golf on poa annua greens, I can sympathize with all of the players at Pebble Beach who have to do with the unreliable nature of greens that sometimes resemble a 12-year old’s pimply face. It can get frustrating, to say the least, when you stroke a putt and it immediately bounces to the left or right and veers off in an unintended direction.
But blaming the greens isn’t the way to beat them. The golf gods are just as likely to throw more poa annua at you if you’re going to blame the greens in your post-round press conference.
Woods has been beating the golf gods for so long, perhaps he forgot that they too have some spirit about them. Ever so often, they get together at the golf gods convention and say, “who do you guys feel like ganging up on this year?” Right now, it looks like they all checked off on poor Tiger’s name.
Mickelson, meanwhile, must be on the golf god’s Christmas card list, because he can almost do no wrong these days. He won The Masters in April as the favorite and even though he hasn’t really played that well since then, everyone, including me, picked him to win this event at Pebble Beach. And after Thursday’s 75, he could have hung his head and complained about the greens like Woods, but Phil knew better. He knew, given his morning start time of 8:06am, that he could’t complain about the poa. He also knew the truth. He didn’t putt very well.
And he fixed it by Friday afternoon.
There will be others who come calling this weekend and make the U.S. Open interesting. I doubt one of those guys is Woods. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see Ernie Els hang around. Or maybe the veteran Jerry Kelly takes one more stab at the major that’s long alluded him. And don’t be shocked if McDowell maintains a spot on the leaderboard. He’s a very good player. Dustin Johnson has won the PGA TOUR stop at Pebble Beach in each of the last two years. Clearly, he can play the course.
In the end, though, on Sunday, I’d be very surprised if Mickelson isn’t putting for the win on 18. It would erase some of the bitterness from weekend collapses at Shinnecock, Bethpage and, of course, Winged Foot a few years back, where he handed the trophy to Geoff Ogilvy on the final hole.
This time around, Mickelson will finish off the job.
But there’s still a lot of golf left to play.
And those poa annua greens await.
It should be fun.