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Because of Amy's ongoing medical treatments she and the kids have accompanied Phil to only one tournament this year, the Masters. It is not a coincidence that his only victory came at Augusta National. If everything goes according to plan, the family will be joining Phil on the weekend of the Open. "That's another reason why I like his chances to win," says Dave Pelz, Mickelson's short-game coach. "It's a huge boost for Phil to have all of them there."
Mickelson's frame of mind during Open week will also be improved by another of his local traditions, a pretournament round at Cypress Point Golf Club, the wondrous Alister MacKenzie design that is just down 17 Mile Drive from Pebble. Mickelson has won three Pebble Beach Pro-Ams ('98, '05, '07) and credits some of his success to the good vibes he gets from playing Cypress the day before the tournament begins. A spin around ultraprivate Cypress Point on the eve of the Open is "a nice chance to get away from the hoopla," Mickelson says, adding, "There are very few courses I get excited just to play in a casual game. Cypress is one of them. It reminds me how much I love this game."
Cypress has heroically resisted retrofitting its timeless layout, so at 6,509 yards it plays very short for Mickelson. "There have been a lot of times when I get to the 11th tee seven or eight under par," he says. "That's fun, obviously, but it also gets me in the right aggressive mind-set for tournament play."
Penal U.S. Open setups often produce meek and defensive golf, but Mickelson plans to go on the attack. "I believe that to succeed at the Open you have to make birdies," he says. "There are a number of holes at Pebble that can be taken advantage of, but you have to play aggressively."
Yet that doesn't necessarily mean hitting driver. By today's standards, at 7,040 yards Pebble is a dainty layout. Nine days before the Open began, Mickelson buzzed in to Pebble for a day of reconnaissance, mixing with the paying customers in a Masters cap and shorts. He hit driver on a half-dozen holes but afterward said, "I could imagine hitting zero drivers in a round, depending on the wind." This wouldn't be a bad thing for Phil. After finding only two of 14 fairways during the Sunday round at Winged Foot that ended so disastrously, he began working with instructor Butch Harmon toward a shorter, tighter, more repeatable swing. There's no question he's driving the ball better, but Mickelson still ranks 183rd on Tour, hitting only 51% of his fairways. (He contends his misses are much more playable.)
If he does unsheathe the driver, Phil will be taking on what may be the most advantageous Open setup he has faced. To emphasize risk-reward and seduce players into flirting with the ocean that frames so many of Pebble's shapely greens, the USGA has clipped the rough to only 2¾ inches on the par-5s and longer par-4s. The shorter holes feature a relatively manageable three inches.
"It's a wider golf course than in 2000," says Mike Davis, the USGA exec who has brought much more imaginative setups to recent Opens. (Ten years ago Mickelson finished 16th, 21 strokes behind Woods.) "A good shotmaker will have a lot of options."
"That's huge for me," says Mickelson. "One reason I play so well at Augusta is because the penalty is not that high for missing fairways."
Positioning off the tee will be paramount, but then the really hard part begins. Pebble is the quintessential second-shot course because of what Davis calls "the smallest greens in championship golf." Throw in unpredictable seaside gales, and even the best ball strikers are going to miss a bunch of greens. "Getting up and down is going to be so crucial," says Mickelson, sounding like the cat that swallowed the canary. "With shorter grass around the greens, I can let my short game take over."
Mickelson has long been compared to Palmer because of their shared swashbuckling style and connection with the fans. But were it not for his famous final-round charge at Cherry Hills in 1960, Palmer would be another of the Open's tragic heroes; he kicked away the tournament four times in a six-year span beginning in 1962. "It is without a doubt the hardest tournament in golf to win," Palmer says. "A U.S. Open course puts a player under tremendous strain. Then there is the pressure you create for yourself because it means so much as our national championship." Nicklaus, whose four Open victories ties him for the most ever with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, offers an earthier assessment: "I always thought the U.S. Open made a man out of you more than any other tournament."