U.S. Open 2018: Phil Mickelson on why Shinnecock is now fair, not a 'carnival course' like 2004

As one of just five golfers playing in this week's field who participated in the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Phil Mickelson has seen a lot over his last quarter century as a contender for this championship, the one that has eluded him. He's seen Good Shinnecock and Very Bad Shinnecock, and he thinks the 2018 version ranks as the best he's seen, maybe ever at his nation's biggest event.

"This is certainly [one of] my favorite courses," said Mickelson. "It's the best setup, in my opinion, that we've seen, and the reason I say that is all areas of your game are being tested. There are some birdie holes. There's some really hard pars. There's some fairways that are easy to hit, fairways that are tough to hit."

This theme has been corroborated by folks who know far more about architecture than myself. 

First, here's Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg, who noted that 2004 -- when the USGA lost the course -- the U.S. Open was less a test of every facet of a player's game than it was a straightforward death march on a track that should be as special as they get.

In the end: Shinnecock Hills will require every type of skill to win. That's what you want your U.S. Open to do. This year's version of Shinnecock Hills will be like solving a complex riddle as opposed to a challenging math equation.

Ben Coley of Sporting Life seconds this.

What makes Shinnecock so special is that it demands total focus and execution from a golfer. Holes run this way and that, no two fairways adjacent, and each and every shot requires thought - there are options from tee to green and selecting the right one is almost as important as producing the shot once that part has been completed. And, like many of the great links courses which influenced it, danger lurks everywhere should a player fail on either count.

Mickelson has spoken reverentially about Shinnecock in the weeks leading up to this event. It's one aspect of the course that I maybe didn't understand prior to doing the research. Shinnecock is an American classic, and most of the players in this tournament love it dearly ... as long as it doesn't get out of hand. 

Rory McIlroy noted this a few weeks ago at Memorial when he said the USGA thinks pro golfers are better than they actually are. Mickelson addressed it on Monday.

"I think it's a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree and then making it carnival golf," said Mickelson. "I think it's a very fine line, and it's not a job I would want. And I know that the USGA is doing the best they can to find that line, and a lot of times they do. Sometimes they cross over it, but it's not an easy job. It's easy for all of us to criticize."

It certainly is easy for all of us to criticize, and sometimes that criticism is deserved. The USGA has addressed that head-on, and I think most involved with this year's tournament are confident that a combination of two of the last three years being a little sketchy with a course this good should produce a tremendous U.S. Open.

Mickelson, who has never won this event but finished second six times, will get two (or maybe three) more great swipes at the career grand slam. All on courses where he's either won or finished in the top two before (Shinnecock, Pebble Beach and Winged Food).

"These three provide me a great opportunity to finish out this final leg," he said. "Certainly, with the way I've been playing this year and at the consistency level, as well as at a much higher level than I've played the last few years, gives me a great opportunity."

But he mentioned the word "weekend" eight times in his presser on Monday and noted that he's only trying to play the course as he sees it on Thursday ... then again on Friday ... then, and only then, he'll worry about the final 36 holes.

"The last thing I'm thinking about right now is trying to win," said Mickelson. "I'm trying to get myself in position for the weekend because, when you try to go out and win a U.S. Open, you will lose it quick.

"It's just that I don't want to get ahead of myself, and I don't want to start thinking about results. I just want to go out and play a solid round on Thursday, given the conditions, and shoot a number that's good relative to what the conditions of the course are and worry about trying to close it out on the weekend."

Of course, in a move consistent with Mickelson's legacy as a contrarian and a lover of grandiose shows, he's skipping practice rounds at Shinnecock this week to play at Friar's Head on Tuesday with Rickie Fowler, Tom Brady and the legend himself, Jimmy Dunne.

Who knows, after skipping last year's event at Erin Hills, maybe not playing the course and not thinking about it will five the soon-to-be 48-year-old Mickelson a leg up on the other 155 golfers in the field. Either way, his last few tussles with the United States Open should be commensurate with the rest of his career: Dramatic, thrilling and full of all manner and degree of surprise.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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