For a guy trying to complete the career majors Grand Slam on a golf course he dearly loves, Phil Mickelson could not be more under the radar this week at the 119th U.S. Open.
Mickelson didn't come to the media center at Pebble Beach for a formal pre-tournament interview, as he has for probably two decades. He waved off attempts by reporters to catch him Tuesday after his practice round.
He has his reasons.
Maybe the San Diegan doesn't want to field more questions about his crushing close calls in the U.S. Open and his record six runner-up finishes.
Maybe he knows he'd be asked to elaborate on his long-standing and more recent criticism of the U.S. Golf Association's setup of Open courses.
Maybe Mickelson doesn't want to talk about the march of time – he turns 49 on Sunday – or a season of mostly mediocre play that has one distinct highlight – his fifth victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February.
What more is there to say about any or all of this?
This week is very likely Mickelson's best chance left to lift the U.S. Open trophy, and whether he does depends wholly on how he strikes his ball and putts, and not anything he says in the buildup.
We already know how Lefty feels about what a U.S. Open victory would mean to his career legacy.
"There's not much I could do right now that would do anything to redefine my career," Mickelson said last month at the PGA Championship. "There's one thing I could do, and that would be win a U.S. Open. So if I were to do that, it would change the way I view my career."
He pointed out only five men have won all four majors, and added, "You look at those guys differently."
On Tuesday evening at Pebble Beach, they held an infrequent reunion of U.S. Open champions. Thirty-two of the 36 who are alive attended. It would probably pain Mickelson to take much time looking at the photo of the group taken near Pebble's 17th green.
Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods. They're all Hall of Famers.
Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose. They're worthy contemporaries.
Steve Jones, Michael Campbell, Webb Simpson, Lucas Glover, Geoff Ogilvy. Those have to sting. A lot.
Mickelson's career as a whole, with his five major titles and 44 PGA Tour wins that rank him ninth all-time, is far superior to any of the last group. Yet, between his own gaffes (see: Winged Foot, 2006) or the heroic efforts of others (see: Payne Stewart, 1999), Mickelson hasn't been able to win the championship he most coveted behind the Masters.
Hard as it is to fathom, a year from now, Mickelson becomes eligible for the senior PGA Champions Tour. That coincides with a return to Winged Foot for the U.S. Open, where Mickelson somehow managed to nearly win in '06 despite missing all but two of the fairways on Sunday. He has no chance there again with that kind of wildness.
How much Mickelson plays on the regular tour after that brings into question him qualifying for future U.S. Opens, including the 2021 edition in his hometown, on the Torrey Pines South Course.
Short of winning the U.S. Open, to play in future national championships, Mickelson will need to qualify through the world rankings (top 60), by capturing one of the other three majors, or with a victory in the U.S. Senior Open (and wouldn't that be fitting?).
There are special exemptions afforded by the USGA into U.S. Opens, but a lot of burned bridges would have to rebuilt for that to happen.
So, Pebble Beach 2019 is very realistically Mickelson's final shot.
History would say he has every reason to believe he can pull it off. Beyond his five wins here that even him with Mark O'Meara as the "Prince of Pebble," Mickelson has a near-spiritual affinity that dates back to his maternal grandfather having caddied here as a young lad.
This is where Mickelson made his professional debut in the 1992 U.S. Open. There are so many good rounds and visuals on which to draw – not the least of which is blowing away playing partner Woods with a 64 in the final round to win the 2012 AT&T.
Just four months ago, Mickelson shot 70-65 at Pebble on the weekend to finish at 19 under and win the AT&T by three shots.
For fans of Phil, there are worrisome signs, too. Since tying for 18th at the Masters, he's missed two cuts and went 76-76 on the weekend to finish tied for 71st in the PGA at Bethpage. He stumbled away from his most recent start at the Memorial with a Friday 79.
So enthused about his swing speed early in the year, he's picked up an impressive 7 yards on drives. But his accuracy just keeps getting worse. He's dipped below 50% in hitting fairways to rank an awful 208th on tour.
That may not hurt Mickelson this week. Most of the big hitters are saying that they'll use the driver fewer than a half-dozen times for each round. If Lefty can find a go-to shot off the tee, it'd be hard to bet against him at Pebble when he's playing from the short grass.
"It lessens my weakness," Mickelson said at Bethpage.
Mickelson's best weapon this season has been his putter (he ranks ninth in strokes gained putting), and Pebble's poa annua greens have been lauded by numerous players this week for running as true as they ever have.
There will be no excuses, no tantrums hitting a moving ball, if the USGA maintains them properly.
That is Mickelson's beef – that the USGA ruined some of his own best chances with crispy greens and goofy setups. Hence, his recent lament, "One hundred percent of the time they have messed it up if it doesn't rain."
This week's forecast calls for not a single drop.
To win, Lefty's love of this place will have to have to suffice.
Phil Mickelson has won the Masters, PGA and British Open, but never the U.S. Open. He has finished second a record six times (and tied for fourth twice):
1999: Pinehurst, lost by one stroke to Payne Stewart
2002: Bethpage, lost by three strokes to Tiger Woods
2004: Shinnecock Hills, lost by two strokes to Retief Goosen
2006: Winged Foot, lost by one stroke to Geoff Ogilvy
2009: Bethpage, lost by two strokes to Lucas Glover
2013: Merion, lost by two strokes to Justin Rose