Phil Mickelson made his professional debut at the 1992 U.S. Open, a cocky 22-year-old with a big, cheesy grin and a rakishly upturned collar. Thanks to a record-breaking amateur career, Mickelson was already being trumpeted as the next Nicklaus when he arrived at Pebble Beach. He didn't disappoint during the Open's first round, stuffing his approach shot on the opening hole to a foot and a half. "That wasn't even the best shot of the day," Mickelson said recently, a bit wistfully. "On 17 I hit a two-iron to four feet." His 68 left him two strokes off the lead, and America's typing class hyperbolized accordingly. "I remember thinking how fun the U.S. Open is," says Mickelson. ¶ Pause.
"The next day, not so much."
During the second round Mickelson needed a birdie at the 18th hole to shoot 81; he missed the cut by five strokes. This whiplash-inducing reversal of fortune was an entirely fitting beginning to Phil's star-crossed Open career. Over the last 11 years he has finished as runner-up in our national championship a record five times, and the heartbreaks have largely defined Mickelson. Playing at Pinehurst in 1999, as his wife, Amy, was due to give birth to their first child, he was trumped on the final green by Payne Stewart's iconic putt. At Bethpage in 2002, Mickelson bogeyed two holes down the stretch and finished three back of Tiger Woods. Two years later Mickelson arrived at baked-out Shinnecock Hills a couple of months removed from his overdue major breakthrough, at the Masters. During a rousing Sunday charge he produced what he called "some of the best golf of my life" but squandered the effort with a messy double bogey on the 71st hole. Still, the near miss confirmed Mickelson as a perennial threat on golf's biggest stages, and he went on to take the 2005 PGA Championship and the '06 Masters. Thus he arrived at Winged Foot for the '06 Open threatening Woods's hegemony for the first time as he tried to join Tiger and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three consecutive professional majors. A misadventure in the trees on the 72nd hole cost Mickelson the tournament and his place in history. That fatal double bogey also began the comparisons to Sam Snead, one of the game's greatest talents who nonetheless lacked the discipline or determination—or both—to win a U.S. Open. (Snead's triple bogey on the final hole to blow the 1939 Open came to embody his career nearly as much as his record 82 victories.)
In the wake of Winged Foot, Mickelson's game went into a funk that lasted the better part of three years. The spark that had been missing came by way of some horrific news, as Amy learned she had breast cancer in May 2009. A month later Phil turned up at the Open and brawled with Bethpage on every shot. But for a few short putts that didn't drop on the final nine holes, he could have pulled off the storybook victory. Winged Foot may have crushed Mickelson, but this latest runner-up finish at the Open steeled him. In the fall of '09 he twice beat Woods head-to-head, and Johnny Miller was among the wags who declared Mickelson the game's best player. And this was before Tiger's crack-up.
This season Mickelson has just kept coming. He won going away at the Masters. He is driving the ball longer and straighter than at any time in his career, his distance control with his irons is more precise and his wedge play remains the best in the game, but this latest surge transcends swing mechanics. "I think he is more focused than I've ever seen him," says Tour veteran Kenny Perry. "It's as if he's finally realized he can't let this God-given talent go to waste. Amy's cancer has focused him, I believe."
Mickelson is No. 2 in the World Ranking, but only the computers believe that. The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach this week, and for the first time this century a healthy Woods is not the favorite heading into a major. "If Phil can keep the ball in play at Pebble, he wins," says Stewart Cink. "Simple as that."
J.J. Henry goes one step further: "The way he is playing, it wouldn't surprise me to see him win by a good margin."
This will be the fifth U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and each of the first four defined its era. Nicklaus's victory in 1972 was a monument to brawny ball striking, while Tom Watson stole a win in '82 with his guile and his wedge. Plodding Tom Kite ground his tail off in windswept conditions in '92, while Woods's record 15-stroke victory in 2000 was testament to his overall mastery and began a run of unprecedented dominance. Pebble Beach is the perfect place for Mickelson to join the pantheon, presenting him with the chance to fulfill the promise of that long-ago 68. "It's certainly one of my favorite Open venues, although I'll admit I'm biased because it was my pro debut," he says. "It would be special to win there for a lot of reasons. I don't want to look past the U.S. Open, but I know I can play well at Pebble. And if I do, that might give me the chance to do something unique."
This is a nod both to the record books—no golfer has won the modern Grand Slam—and this summer's other major championship venues: the Old Course, which is the British Open site that best suits Mickelson's game, and Whistling Straits, which will host the PGA Championship. The last time the PGA was held at the Straits, in 2004, Mickelson was a stroke off the lead standing on the 72nd tee before a closing bogey ended his bid. Only one man on earth knows what it feels like to journey to St. Andrews halfway to the Grand Slam—Arnold Palmer, who did so in 1960, ultimately finishing a stroke behind little-known Kel Nagle in an outcome that still haunts Palmer. "If [Mickelson] wins the Open at Pebble, it will be a big, big, big deal," says the King. "And then to go straight to St. Andrews, well, that would be pretty magical."
Pebble Beach has long been one of the Mickelson family's most anticipated stops on the PGA Tour circuit. "The Monterey Bay Aquarium is our favorite," Amy wrote in an e-mail to SI last month. "We used to go so often during the week of the [AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am] that it was cheaper for us to buy a yearly membership." Phil, Amy and their three kids have sojourned to Big Sur to hike among the towering redwoods, and Phil and Amy know all the best spots to view frolicking otters and sea lions. Phil is both an epicurean and oenophile, and he loves to eat his way across the Monterey Peninsula—ask him to name a few favorite restaurants and he goes genre by genre, from greasy spoons to temples of fine dining. "You can just relax and get lost when you visit the area," Amy says. "It's good for your soul and always a special week for our family."