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Mickelson has mastered finishing second but craves first US Open title

Phil Mickelson talks during a news conference for the U.S. Open golf championship at Oakmont Country Club on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Oakmont, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Phil Mickelson talks during a news conference for the U.S. Open golf championship at Oakmont Country Club on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Oakmont, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar, AP

Phil Mickelson will pardon Jack Nicklaus for his personal short-sightedness.

During a conversation he had with the five-time major champion at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Nicklaus reminded Mickelson that, of his 42 PGA Tour victories, he is missing one significant title.

Nicklaus was referring to his tournament, the Memorial.

Mickelson had another one in mind.

“I want to win this tournament,” Mickelson said, referring to the Memorial, where he failed again for the 16th time last weekend. “There’s another one in two weeks I really want to win, too.”

That one is a little more important: The U.S. Open.

With all apologies to the Golden Bear, that means more to Mickelson than the Memorial.

No player in history has experienced more U.S. Open heartache than Phil Mickelson.

He has finished runner-up in the Open a staggering six times, which is two more than anyone else. Some of his near-misses remain among the most memorable in golf, everything from the dramatic loss to Payne Stewart in 1999 at Pinehurst to the “I’m-such-an-idiot” final-hole gaffe in 2006 at Winged Foot.

On top of that, he returns to Oakmont, where he missed the cut in 2007 because of a sore left wrist that was injured weeks earlier practicing out of the club’s nasty rough. That was the last time Mickelson missed a cut in a U.S. Open. He missed only one other time in 25 appearances — in 1992 at Pebble Beach, his first as a pro.

It is the major he doesn’t have, the one that keeps him from becoming the only the sixth player in history to complete golf’s Grand Slam.

“I love Oakmont,” Mickelson said. “I think it’s the hardest golf course I’ve ever played and, because of that, I’m looking forward to this year’s Open championship. I can’t wait to get back.”

In 2007, Mickelson couldn’t wait to get back to the U.S. Open because it was a chance at redemption at what happened a year earlier at Winged Foot. He had changed swing coaches, parting with longtime instructor Rick Smith to work with Butch Harmon. And he was coming to Oakmont in good form, with a victory at The Players championship and a pair of third-place finishes in his previous three starts.

But, before he was to play at the Memorial, Mickelson went to Oakmont to play an early practice round. He injured his wrist attempting to hit medium and long irons, even fairway metals, from the shaggy rough. Mickelson still went to the Memorial and played a practice round. But he withdrew when his wrist continued to bother him. He withdrew a week later from the St. Jude Classic and received a cortisone shot in his wrist.

It never got better in time for the Open, when he wore a protective sleeve on his wrist, shot 74-77 — 151 and missed the cut. Thursday, he parred the last eight holes despite hitting just five fairways and only eight greens in regulation. Friday, his travails included a four-putt at the par-4 No. 10, the hole he considers the toughest on the course.

Asked if he was disappointed about what happened, Mickelson said, “Yeah, but (the injury) turned out to not be a long-term issue and went away and it was OK.”

Mickelson does not come to Oakmont this time in similar form. He has missed the cut in three of his past five starts, including the Masters and Players championship, but he has four top-5 finishes this season and was tied for 20th at the Memorial.

Since 2011, Mickelson has four second-place finishes and a victory in his past 19 major championships. But he will turn 46 Thursday, and time might be running out. He would be the oldest U.S. Open champion in history if he could finally finish one spot higher.

“I did all that (preparation) work for the ’07 Open, and nothing’s really changed. I don’t really have to do that again,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been studying the notes because they’re fairly extensive. I’ll just go out and practice and play and develop a game plan on how I want to play.”