Tag:us open
Posted on: June 15, 2011 1:47 pm

Lefty win at Open would be capital achievement

BETHESDA, Md. -- Epiphanies are usually like lightning strikes.

That is, bursts of inspiration or blasts of insight that often lead to direction, inspiration and personal accomplishment.

The Eureka moment for Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open was more of a slow burn, versus a bonfire.

Mickelson first realized you cannot attack a U.S. Open venue like other courses at Shinnecock in 1995, where he finished T4 behind diminutive winner Corey Pavin, a finesse player. It was Mickelson's fifth Open and he played the 16th hole in 6-over for the week, a product of his gung-ho style.

"I learned a lot from the loss at Shinnecock," Mickelson said. "A lot of people don't even remember that I really was in it ... I learned a lot about how to play a U.S. Open that week."

He's still learning, scheming and hoping.

Mickelson, the last American to have won a major championship, arrived this week at the 111st U.S. Open with his customary bag of tricks -- contained in a Callaway tour bag, to be precise -- designed to produce, at long last, his first national championship.

That Mickelson has finished second a record five times at this event has become the stuff of lore, and his resume also includes two fourth-place finishes, including last summer at Pebble Beach. As tournaments go, it's the biggest item left on his professional bucket list.

Mickelson, who turns 41 on Thursday, has become the center of attention in the nation's capital, the belter of the Beltway, a guy who could get elected to public office, but can’t quite win the most public of the major championships. With Tiger Woods home cooling his jets, and the other faces atop the global pecking order seemingly changing daily, Lefty's quest is probably the most singularly intriguing plotline. Don’t take my word for it.

"Obviously, the attention falls squarely on Mickelson," NBC's Dan Hicks said Wednesday. "I think it is the most compelling story heading into this championship. Mickelson still does things on the golf course that fall into that Tigeresque, magical category."

Well, magic or tragic, Lefty is an equal-opportunity guy.

He came to Congressional Country Club armed with a beefed-up 2-iron he gave a lengthy tryout two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament, planning to bash it off the tees on tighter holes to keep the ball in play. Then he arrived and decided that the driver was the better play.

"He's gonna just throw it in the garbage, basically," NBC's Johnny Miller said of the preliminary game plan, laughing.

That's our Philly, king of the head-scratching ad-libs, for good or bad. Mickelson once played an Open without a driver in the bag. He won a Masters with two drivers in the bag. He lost an Open at Winged Foot five years ago because he hit an ill-advised driver on the final hole that sailed into a tent.

"It's like, what were you thinking, you know?" Miller said, when reminded of that fateful shot.

It's Mickelson -- thinking isn't always compulsory. We can expect an evolution, not revolution. He's still got to be true to himself, no? He tempers his play, he doesn’t completely harness it.

"My first real opportunity to win was '99," Mickelson said of his first runner-up finish. "So it took me six, seven, eight years to really get into contention and have a great opportunity to win. But since then I've kind of figured out how to manage myself around, control my misses and salvage pars the hard way.

"I'm not going to play perfect golf, I'm not going to hit every fairway.  But there are times I can manage it and get the ball, advance it far enough to salvage pars, and that's allowed me to be in contention a number of times."

Contending, but not winning. Some might view five second-place finishes as a form of validation. Obviously, nobody gets that close without doing plenty of things right. But there's a yang to that yin.

"Well, if I was Phil Mickelson, I would look at five runner ups as very, very disappointing," two-time Open winner Curtis Strange said. "You have to try to take a positive out of it, but when you have his amount of talent and his ability and his record, not winning when you have a chance to win is disappointing. 

"There is no way else to look at it.  I felt for him every time.  But he's had opportunities, and he just hasn't come through.  I think he certainly would look at it as a black eye right now."

Yes and no. Given the way Mickelson plays, few would argue the notion that the Open seems the least well-suited to his style of play. Precision is paramount, though the graduated rough instituted five years ago has helped his chances some.

"When you look at a U.S. Open, you think of a guy that plays a little conservative or is able to be consistent or those sort of criteria whereas with Phil, you think of more of the flamboyant, aggressive, swashbuckling?type of player," two-time Open winner Andy North said. "He can be that other type of player, too -- he just hasn't done it enough at an Open. You see him trying to do it, but it fights some of the things he's done for his entire life, and that makes it difficult."

How can you beat the field when you can’t corral your golfing DNA? We're arguing the philosophy of the Phil-osophy, always a touchy prospect. But North believes the layout, with more generous fairway widths than at some past Open venues, is perhaps as advantageous as any he has played. 

"Of the Open courses we've played the last ten or 12 years, I think Congressional sets up quite well for him," North said. "The fairways are generous, the rough isn't horrendous ... and it's a golf course where if you have length, that's a positive. 

"Phil does.  If you hit the ball way up in the air because of the elevated greens, that's a positive for Phil.  I think it comes down to people have talked about what a fantastic putter he's been all these years.  Well, he goes in streaks. There are times he's unbelievable. There are times he's very average. He misses too many short putts.  If he has a good week putting, I think Congressional's a great venue for him to win on."

So was Pebble Beach last year, a site where Mickelson had won on the PGA Tour. Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, Mickelson's issues with arthritis began last June, just as the Open week began. He had trouble gripping the club with all 10 fingers that week, though he pooh-poohs the severity of the aches and pains at that particular time, compared to how bad it got later, when he could barely get off the couch.

"At the time, I didn't think much of it," Mickelson recalled. "I just thought it was one of those things where you get a little ache and it'll go away. I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary."

Daily medication arrested the problem, and Mickelson says he feels as good as ever. It took him 47 tries in Grand Slam events to win the first of his four majors. This week marks his 21st U.S. Open appearance.

Mickelson said he doesn’t feel any biological clock ticking just yet, and is determined to tune out the talk of his Open misfortunes this week, just as he did when he was 0-fer at the majors seven years ago.

"I'm trying to have the same mindset I had before I ever won a major, which was belief that I know I could do it and enjoyment of the challenge," he said. "I'm trying to enjoy the challenge this week, and deep down I have the belief that I can come out on top, but I'm trying not to worry about the result."

As ever, there are plenty of others who'll handle that last part for him.

Category: Golf
Posted on: June 15, 2011 9:32 am

McIlroy finds inspiration in humanitarian trip

BETHESDA, Md. -- It's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and would probably be classified as a fourth-world nation if the scale went down that far. It's been wracked by poverty and disease, politically pillaged for decades, and repeatedly drilled by Mother Nature.

But Rory McIlroy noticed something remarkable, and quite unexpected, when he made a humanitarian visit with UNICEF to Haiti last week, a place where he actually qualifies as an elder statesman at age 22.

An indomitable spirit.

The kids that the rising star met had no idea who he was, and have never seen golf, much less played  it, but milled around him like a pied piper as he handed out soap and helped educate them about the dangers of cholera and other diseases that have long afflicted the island nation, which was leveled by an earthquake 1 1/2 years ago.
Amazingly, among the devastation that left the Northern Irishman grasping for the right adjectives to describe his two-day visit, he found optimism.

"They didn't have a clue who I was," McIlroy laughed. "But the spirit of the children -- I mean, children are so resilient. It was almost as if they were oblivious to what was around them. Once they went in the school, they were happy, they were singing songs ...."

Haiti is the only life they have ever known. For them, there's no comparison, no contrast. McIlroy, however, has already traveled the globe as the No. 8 player in the world. The visit doubtlessly had a far greater impact on him than the kids he saw on the trip.

He carries photos of the trip on his cell phone. His new Twitter avatar is a photo of Rory holding a grinning Haitian child. That anybody smiles in a country where more than half the country lives below the poverty line is incredible in itself.

"Yeah, I thought I had perspective before going to Haiti, and then actually seeing it, it just gives you a completely different view on the world and the game that you play," McIlroy said. "It just makes you feel so lucky that I'm able just to sit here and drink a bottle of water, just the normal things that everyone does that you take for granted."

Things he will never again take for granted: Paved roads, habitable housing, sanitary conditions. Between jaunts to clinics and schools that UNICEF helps fund, McIlroy got an awful eyeful of the Port-au-Prince out his car window.

People living in tents and shantys, lacking running water and electricity, while navigating roads that were more pothole than pavement.

"The thing that I remember is driving past the presidential palace, and the dome on the top of it is just hanging off," McIlroy said softly. "It's just a mess.  I've got a picture of it on my phone.  I was just thinking to myself if they can't even repair [things for] the president  then they can't do anything. They just need so much help."

Golfers are involved in plenty of humanitarian efforts. Padraig Harrington, for one, has long been associated with the Special Olympics. Phil Mickelson funds an organization for at-risk schoolkids. Many have game, and heart.

He left for Haiti after his final round at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio on June 5, and it's already been a publicity boon for UNICEF, which signed McIlroy as an ambassador earlier this year. He wanted to do something for people in is proximal age group, and UNICEF concentrates on providing aid to children, it was perfect.

Sixty percent of the Haitian population is age 18 or younger. McIlroy said the kids often are going home and educating their parents on health-related issues they learned at UNICEF schools and clinics.

As though the experience wasn't jarring already, McIlroy trekked straight from Haiti to the posh and privileged embrace of Pine Valley, perhaps the top private course in the United States, for a couple of days of practice. Two locales could not underscore the polar extremes of the wealth spectrum more succinctly.
"It gives you a huge sense of just being so fortunate and just doing normal things every day," he said. "Even having streetlights and smooth roads, those people down there don't have that, and they might not have that for the next 15 or 20 years."

Plenty of folks were impressed by the grace that McIlroy showed when he blew the 54-hole lead at the masters in April, shooting 80 in the final round and imploding on the back nine. But in a grander sense, the Haitian episode might be much more important to his development as a person and player.

Context, after all, is an important thing in anyone's life.

"I'm nowhere in the position that some of these kids are, but walking into a school in Haiti last week and seeing a few of the faces light up, and playing soccer with them, just doing normal stuff that, again, we take for granted every day," he said. "It's a pretty cool feeling to be able to fill that child with a little bit of hope or joy for a couple of hours."

McIlroy is already considering a return trip and working out the logistics for a proposed visit to Sri Lanka, another impoverished nation, later this year. His ambassador trip to Haiti has been a public-relations boon for UNICEF, generating stories in the Washington Post, ESPN and other huge media outlets.

A new president was recently elected in Haiti, and the populace if hopeful that things will eventually change. They almost can’t get worse.

"It's still a country in a very bad state, but it's definitely going in the right direction," McIlroy said. "It's great to see."

Category: Golf
Tags: mcilroy, us open
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