What a U.S. Open win could mean for Phil Mickelson

Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson
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When Phil Mickelson finished runner up to Payne Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, it was the first time in his career Mickelson finished second in the national championship.
By T.J. Auclair
PGA.com
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Monday, June 09, 2014 | 8:52 a.m.

With the full understanding that it's nearly impossible to make you feel bad for a guy who has won 42 times on the PGA Tour, including five majors, has a loving family and a permanent smile, I'd like to make a case for Phil Mickelson.

This week, the 43-year-old Mickelson along with 155 more of the best golfers in the world, will descend on Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open.

Right around the time we get to thinking the game owes us one is also about the precise time that the Golf Gods remind us we're owed nothing.

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But, man, can't Mickelson just get that one U.S. Open trophy to check, "career Grand Slam winner," off his long list of accomplishments?

This is a man who has finished runner up in our national championship on a record six occasions. Six. That's two more than anyone else. Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are all second on the list of most runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open with four apiece.

Snead, like Mickelson, is the lone legend on that list who never snagged a U.S. Open. Jones (4), Palmer (1) and Nicklaus (4) account for nine U.S. Open titles.

Given his record this season -- zero top-10 finishes in 14 starts -- it's hard to imagine, but, this could be Mickelson's best chance at winning the U.S. Open.

And, trust us when we tell you, there's no place Lefty would rather win.

Let's take you all the way back, 15 years ago, to 1999. It was there at Pinehurst when Mickelson was "second-best" at the U.S. Open for the first time in his career. At the time, Mickelson was a 28-year-old, 16-time Tour winner with three top-5 finishes in the majors.

Many were beginning to wonder when Mickelson would win his first major -- it hadn't yet reached the point where some wondered if he'd ever win a big one (for the record, Mickelson wouldn't claim his first major until the 2004 Masters -- his 11th start in the Masters and 42nd start, as a professional, in a major).

That whole week at Pinehurst in June of 1999, Mickelson had two things weighing heavily on his mind: trying to win a major and -- more importantly than anything else -- the impending birth of his first child.

Throughout the week, Mickelson carried a pager along for each round (remember those things?) and swore that if it went off indicating that his wife, Amy, was going into labor, he would immediately leave the golf course to head back home to the other side of the country to be there for the birth of the couple's first child -- no matter his standing in the tournament.

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That would have been the right thing to do -- no one can deny that. But, put in that very situation, it would be interesting to see how many players would leave with a chance to win a major championship.

Luckily for the world of golf, Mickelson's pager never went off. Because of that, we were able to witness one of the all-time epic U.S. Open duels between Mickelson and Payne Stewart.

We all know how it played out. Stewart played near flawless golf all week and holed a long putt on 18 to edge Mickelson in regulation. But, in his exhilarating moment -- and after a bear hug with his caddie Mike Hicks -- Stewart walked over to Mickelson, who had his hand extended to congratulate the champion. Right then, Stewart made the moment about Mickelson. He famously grabbed Mickelson's face on that Father's Day in 1999 and, nose-to-nose, looking the father-to-be Mickelson right in the eyes, Stewart said, "You're going to be a father!"

With those words, Stewart put into perspective that -- compared to being a father -- the U.S. Open was really only a consolation prize. It was an awesome moment.

The next day, the Mickelson's welcomed baby Amanda to the world.

Since then, so much has happened on the course for Mickelson. He's won the Masters three times, the PGA Championship once and just last summer he won the British Open. All he needs (yeah, "all he needs") is that U.S. Open to complete the career Grand Slam and join Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players in history to do so.

It's often said that the U.S. Open is the most difficult of the four majors to win. You're not likely to get an argument from Mickelson there.

On Sunday, Mickelson tied for 11th at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, matching his best finish this season. While you'd think that might be cause for some confidence. You'd be wrong. During his final round, Mickelson actually switched his putting grip. Afterwards, when asked about his putting, he said: "Pathetic."

In a U.S. Open, "pathetic" putting isn't going to get the job done. But maybe, just maybe, Mickelson can recapture the magic he had at Pinehurst 15 years ago.

For Mickelson, there would be no better place to complete the career grand slam. 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.