US Open 2014: Phil Mickelson looks back on track despite distractions
After his brush with the FBI, the American is focused on claiming the only major he has yet to win
We have come to expect the radical intervention from Phil Mickelson, a golfer capable at his best of conjuring outcomes beyond the imagination of most. But a knock on the door from the FBI? This must be the greatest shock treatment ever attempted to jolt a game to life in the build-up to a major championship. "Step out of the buggy and take your hands off the golf clubs."
Mickelson's near misses at the US Open, the only major he has yet to win, have been the dominant narrative since Tiger Woods slipped down the food chain. We thought he might tie the knot when he led every round at Merion last year before being tasered by Justin Rose with that killer 4-iron at the last.
He rebounded to win the Open at Muirfield a month later but has struggled to find the sweet spot since. There is little in sport to match the misery that attaches to a champion golfer out of rhythm. To be invited by the Feds to help with their inquiries into questionable investment practices, aka insider trading, breaks new ground even for the desperate.
Mickelson was approached by the FBI and the Securities Exchange Commission after his first round at last week's Memorial Tournament in Ohio. Interest centred on investments in a company called Clorox after shares soared following a bid to buy it was made by an alleged associate.
This kind of episode might shatter the equilibrium of mortals but not Lefty. Mickelson denies any wrongdoing and is enthusiastically helping the authorities in their pursuit of the truth. "I think that as a player you have to be able to block out whatever is going on off the golf course and be able to focus," he said. "It's not going to change the way I carry myself. Honestly, I've done nothing wrong. I'm not going to walk around any other way."
Too true. Mickelson pitched up at Pinehurst on Monday for two days' familiarisation with the revamped No 2 course, the divine location where 15 years ago he was memorably pipped by Payne Stewart, who sank a 15-footer at the last to win by a stroke. The course has been restored to its original design since the US Open was last held here in 2005. Gone are the tight fairways and penal rough, replaced by wider landing areas bordered by the native scrub and grasses that characterised the earlier Donald Ross design.
Mickelson was steady enough on his feet to deliver a video cameo in which he purred glowing impressions. If this was a man struggling with his conscience, he concealed it brilliantly. Only when matters divert to his near misses in his national championship does his countenance shift, particularly when reflecting on Merion last year.
"It's easier to be honest and up front about what I'm feeling and going through than it is to try and deny it, which is why, when I lose, I talk about how tough it is. It's challenging. It was the biggest defeat. I had such a down moment after losing at Merion."
Mickelson was tied ninth on five under par after his delayed second round at the St Jude Classic yesterday, proof his game is finally coming back to him, good enough perhaps to polish a US Open record that has seen him finish runner up six times. "I do feel after the last ten days of practice that my game is sharper than it has been all year. I feel like I've done what I needed to do. And now, because I haven't had the outcome or the results that I wanted this year, I just need to get some confidence."
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