LA JOLLA, Calif. — It was 31 years ago Monday—June 14, 1990—that golf’s Ahab set off in pursuit of his whale, a fruitless hunt that has been the sport’s most compelling, quixotic and at times anguished tale.
Phil Mickelson turned 20 years old during that ’90 U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club and earned low amateur honors. Hale Irwin became the oldest-ever champion at age 45. Three decades later, the kid is collecting the old man accolades, but is still searching for the prize that matters to him most.
Mickelson became the oldest winner in major championship history when he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island last month. A second straight major victory—especially this major, in his hometown—would be the stuff of fairytales. Except Moby Dick wasn’t a fairytale.
“It’s a unique opportunity because I’ve never won a U.S. Open,” Mickelson said Monday, a fact even the most casual fan knows. The PGA Championship was his sixth major title but Mickelson’s career has been defined by the only major he hasn’t won. He’s finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times, and since his birthday always falls during tournament week, every disappointment comes with a reminder that he has less time remaining to fulfill his dream of the career Grand Slam.
He will launch his 30th bid for the title on Thursday and has been determined to tune out the distractions.
“I’ve kind of shut off all the noise. I’ve shut off my phone. I’ve shut off a lot of the other stuff to where I can kind of focus in on this week and really give it my best chance to try to play my best,” he said. “Now, you always need some luck, you always need things to kind of come together and click, but I know that I’m playing well, and I just wanted to give myself every opportunity to be in play at my best.”
Phil Mickelson chips onto the 11th green during a practice round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Photo by Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Mickelson knows something about playing his best over the clifftop South course at Torrey Pines. He has won the regular PGA Tour stop here, the Farmers Insurance Open, three times. However, the last of those wins was 20 years ago and he hasn’t cracked the top 10 in a decade. His last decent finish in the U.S. Open was his last near-miss, eight years ago at Merion.
That’s the problem with getting to be Mickelson’s age: the numbers tend to tell you how good you used to be. What happened at Kiawah Island proved how good he still can be, in the right circumstances.
The Hall of Famer upended the oddsmakers by holding off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen by two strokes, unexpectedly ending a two-year winless drought, and fully eight years after his last major win at the Open Championship in 2013.
“When it all comes together at a perfect time like that was exciting to put it together,” he said. “I feel like – or I’m hopeful that some of the things that I had learned heading in will carry over and give me some more opportunities this summer, because I feel like I’m playing some good golf.”
If he is to finally win the U.S. Open, Mickelson will need something more than good golf. Torrey Pines is a test unlike the one he mastered at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. That windswept layout in South Carolina rewarded the skills a man accumulates with age, like patience, experience and strategic savvy. Torrey Pines, however, is a typically demanding U.S. Open layout that exposes what a man loses with age: distance, strength, confidence on the greens.
Despite living nearby, Mickelson doesn’t spend much time at Torrey Pines outside of tournaments—Tour players tend not to enjoy lengthy rounds on municipal golf courses—but he’s been coming by recently in an effort to relearn the golf course and settle on a strategy for this week.
“There’s a proper way to play here to each pin, and I just have tried to do too much in the past,” he admitted. “I felt like if I could learn the greens and know what a lot of the 30- and 40-foot putts do, then I don’t have to try to get it into these tiny little shelves, and I can make easy pars and make a few of the longer putts. That was kind of my thought process.”
Mickelson played a practice round Monday with Akshay Bhatia, who was born a few months before the veteran recorded his second runner-up finish in the U.S. Open in 2002, but it’s unclear whose brain was being picked. “He has as many questions for me as I have for him,” Mickelson said. “I’m curious how he does things too because he’s got a lot of clubhead speed, a lot of strength, a lot of shot making. He might ask me a few things on chipping. I might ask him a few things on clubs.”
In the only other U.S. Open contested at Torrey Pines in 2008, Mickelson backdoored a top 20 finish on the strength of a solid final round. The weapons he had back then in his prime have been recalibrated to the limitations of a man who turns 51 on Wednesday and who now needs to plot his way around a major venue rather than simply overpower it.
“You kind of learn in plateaus, and every now and then you might be working hard, working hard, doing the right things and not getting the progress, and then you kind of get a spike,” he said philosophically. “That spike came at the PGA to where it all kind of comes together and you put it all together it was at the right time. Hopefully, I’ll continue to play at a new plateau, at a little bit higher level, because some things started to click.”
That sense of boyish optimism is the only thing that remains unchanged since Mickelson began his U.S. Open quest 31 years ago. No matter how many gut punches and near misses he has had along the way, Ahab isn’t ready to give up on the hunt just yet.