Mick­el­son wants thrill back

Los Angeles Times - - U.S. OPEN - By Tod Leonard tod.leonard@ut­sandiego.com

UNIVER­SITY PLACE, Wash. — These are Phil Mick­el­son’s last two years played out on a sin­gle hole:

In his U.S. Open prac­tice round Tues­day, clearly iden­ti­fi­able in all black in bright sun­shine, Mick­el­son stood on the tee on the bunker­strewn par-three 17th at Cham­bers Bay. He set his feet, wag­gled his club and from the grand­stand 200 yards away some­one bel­lowed, “This is the year, Phil!”

Mick­el­son took a deep breath and swung, but got over the top too much and pulled his shot into the mas­sive sand pit to the right of the green.

Mock­ing boos rained down as if this were the Sta­dium 16th green at TPC Scotts­dale.

“Darn it!” Mick­el­son said to him­self in a scold­ing tone.

The crowd made up for its prick­li­ness with a ren­di­tion of “Happy Birth­day” for Mick­el­son, cel­e­brat­ing his 45th on Tues­day, but there’s clearly a mixed mes­sage of con­fi­dence and frus­tra­tion.

There are the ex­pec­ta­tions that come from sup­port­ers be­cause Mick­el­son is a five-time ma­jor win­ner and one of the most pop­u­lar golfers of all time. He is “Phil the Thrill,” af­ter all.

Then there is the re­al­ity, which has seen him mostly scuf­fle around cour­ses in the nearly two years since he cap­tured the third leg of the ca­reer Grand Slam with a sur­pris­ing Bri­tish Open win. Mick­el­son’s sat­is­fac­tion has gone as dry as front lawns in Cal­i­for­nia, the drought ex­tend­ing to 39 events since he hoisted the Claret Jug at Muir­field in July 2013.

This week’s U.S. Open is Mick­el­son’s sec­ond chance to be­come the sixth player to com­plete the Mas­ters-Era ca­reer Slam. He wasn’t close last year at Pine­hurst in ty­ing for 28th.

“I still have a huge ob­sta­cle, a huge chal­lenge that I’m try­ing to over­come … and I’m en­joy­ing it,” Mick­el­son said. “I’m hav­ing fun with it. It’s an ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­nity, and ev­ery year it comes around I get ex­cited to try to con­quer that op­por­tu­nity.”

Mick­el­son’s mostly un­even 2015, with two top-five fin­ishes that in­clude his first run­ner-up at the Mas­ters, wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily pre­dict a sharp ef­fort at Cham­bers. But he did two things to raise his prospects: Mick­el­son closed the St. Jude Clas­sic with a 65 on Sun­day and, un­like most of the top pros, made a pre-tour­na­ment re­con­nais­sance visit to quirky Cham­bers, about which he con­tin­ues to rave.

“A won­der­ful golf course. It’s play­ing and set up much like we’re used to at the Bri­tish Open,” said the player who be­fore his Open Cham­pi­onship tri­umph had posted only two top-10s in his pre­vi­ous 19 tries in the ma­jor.

What makes Cham­bers Bay most invit­ing for Mick­el­son is that some of the fair­ways are as wide as football fields (he ranks a poor 153rd on tour in driv­ing ac­cu­racy), and there is the req­ui­site short-game fi­nesse re­quired, for which Mick­el­son has few ri­vals. It also isn’t ex­pected to be very windy this week, an ad­van­tage for a high-ball hitter like Lefty.

“You don’t have to hit per­fect golf shots around here to be able to score and get around it,” Mick­el­son said.

Mick­el­son has even come up with what he might calls his “Cham­bers” club, a 60de­gree wedge from which he ba­si­cally shaved off the bot­tom to give it no bounce on the firm fes­cue.

Among those laud­ing Mick­el­son’s chances is Greg Nor­man, a two-time Bri­tish Open win­ner who will be in the TV booth for Fox.

“This golf course is good for him; it fits his eye,” Nor­man said. “I love the way he’s swing­ing the club.

“The big­gest thing for him is stay­ing calm. He’s go­ing to feel [the ex­cite­ment] for sure. It’s about him man­ag­ing his own ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Shut out of win­ning the U.S. Open and Mas­ters, Nor­man knows all about un­re­al­ized goals. Mick­el­son has a record six run­ner-ups in the U.S. Open, the last com­ing two years ago at Me­rion. Mick­el­son has said that not win­ning the na­tional cham­pi­onship would be an im­mense dis­ap­point­ment.

“I’ve al­ways been some­body, ever since I was a kid, who got mo­ti­vated by fail­ure,” he said. “Some peo­ple get dis­cour­aged by that, and it al­most pushed them away. For me it’s a mo­ti­va­tor to con­tinue to work harder and get over the hump.”

Char­lie Riedel As­so­ci­ated Press

PHIL MICK­EL­SON hits out of the bunker on the 10th green dur­ing a prac­tice round for the U.S. Open. He hasn’t won an event since July 2013 but has made moves to boost his prospects at Cham­bers Bay.

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