Try to imagine telling yourself with a straight face on New Year's Day that Phil Mickelson would be one of the top storylines at Torrey Pines for the 2021 U.S. Open. Sounds implausible. Sounds impossible. Mostly because -- at that time -- Mickelson was not even in the U.S. Open, much less a legitimate contender or threat to win the only major championship that has eluded him over the course of his outrageously good career.
You did not know at that time that Mickelson would receive a special exemption into Torrey Pines, and you certainly did not know he would not even need it. That's because Lefty ultimately went on to stare down and defeat Brooks Koepka in the final round of the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May to grab a spot in the next five U.S. Opens, no privilege required.
Now the U.S. Open has arrived. Most of the top 10 players in the world currently have gaping holes in their games (or at least some legitimate questions), and while I don't truly think Mickelson can contend at a modern U.S. Open setup, I'm the same person who cackled when his name was brought up as somebody who could win Kiawah (if it was brought up at all).
Lefty has an infamously complicated relationship with his nation's championship. Murphy's Law seems to apply here. Basically everything other than a win at this tournament has happened to him over the course of his career.
Mickelson has finished second every way imaginable -- six times in total -- and he's nearly had to leave in the final round while leading. He skipped one event a few years ago because of a graduation, and yeah, he once hit a moving ball with his putter at Shinnecock in 2018. In addition to those six top-twos, Lefty has four other top 10s at the U.S. Open.
However, the PGA Championship effort may be instructive. While you weren't paying attention, Mickelson has flipped the script a bit when it comes to his press conferences at majors. Major Presser Phil is normally jovial and heavy on jokes he uses as talking points. Lately, he's turned philosophical and maybe a bit inspirational. That's how he spoke at Kiawah, and that's how he spoke on Monday at Torrey about Kiawah.
"When you continue to work hard, do the right things and see the progress but not get the results, it's very frustrating, and a lot of times people will stop or quit because they're just not getting out of it what they feel they're putting into it," said Mickelson.
"But 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. 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."
The question is whether that theory, which is great, can be appropriately applied to a U.S. Open career. Is what we have seen so far from Mickelson him learning in plateaus at this tournament before a final breakthrough that nets him the career grand slam? The numbers say, "No." Lefty does not have a top 10 at this tournament since 2013, which has always felt like his last true chance at a U.S. Open. He doesn't even have a top-40 finish since 2014.
Mickelson himself has admitted his ship has sailed right out of the USGA's harbor multiple times. This is an open secret. He has literally said it out loud to other members of the media while being interviewed.
"I really don't have many more chances," Mickelson stated after the 2019 edition at Pebble Beach (a course where he's thrived throughout his career), where he finished T52. "Probably have to come to the realization I'm not going to win the U.S. Open."
However, a wild last stab at the career slam is suddenly no longer dead. Perhaps the PGA was a crazy one-off event for Lefty, but perhaps not. While the course setup favors the biggest bombers (whom Mickelson is not among), there are a lot of other indicators that point toward potential contention. Mickelson named a few of them on Monday.
"It's a unique opportunity because I've never won a U.S. Open," said Mickelson. "It's in my backyard. I have a chance to prepare properly, and I wanted to put in the right work. So 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.
"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."
Mickelson has won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines three times, though the last of those was 20 years ago. A fourth victory here -- what would be his seventh major championship -- would usurp the PGA Championship last month as the most shocking win of his career.
Despite all of that, Lefty has given fans (and himself) something that is nearly impossible to drum up outside of either tangible production or unwavering belief in the absence of it (Mickelson is holding a bit of both in his hands right now). He's given himself and those who follow him hope.
Hope that Kiawah was not simply a temporary spark from a slowly fading legend but rather the kindling for the greatest 30-day heater of his magical career.