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Phil's Birthday Present - He Really Likes Congressional
It's become a bit of a tradition at the U.S. Open that the galleries will serenade Phil Mickelson with many rousing choruses of "Happy Birthday" and the golf course will ring with the cheering. Today is actually his birthday, and for a present the USGA sends him off the back nine to open the tournament with a par-3 that everyone is whining about, a par-4 narrower than the walk-in closet of a New York City studio apartment, and gauntlet of closing holes scarier than Castle Dracula. That's like taking a guy out for his birthday and letting him get the check.
Still, Phil is undaunted.
"I thought the set-up here is spectacular," he confided. "It's wonderfully fair for such a difficult, long test."
And so his quest for his first U.S. Open title begins, perhaps the most compelling story line of the tournament. Phil is the fan favorite and a media darling, yet he has had one tragic failure after another in the tournament he wants to win the most - his National Championship of Golf. We've seen him with three Green Jackets and we've seen him near tears at Winged Foot, and all sorts of zany places in between (the trees at Colonial for instance!). We know we're going to get a show.
We also know Phil will be impeccably prepared. He's made several junkets to D.C. for practice days as the spring has gone by. He's dissected the golf course, first in his head, then between the ropes. He's got a game plan and he's going to be ready for battle.
"The course tests your entire game. This one tests your ability to hit recovery shots, as well as how well you keep the ball in play," he explained. "Starting on Thursday, it will be very difficult. Each hole will be a tough par."
Well, not every hole. Consensus seems to be that there are birdie ops at the par-5s and at the short par-4s on the front. Score early, then hang on for dear life late as the back nine par-4s all exceed 470 yards.
"These par-4s are an extreme challenge," said Mickelson. "Though there are some par-5s you can play, like number 6 . . . I'm glad they glad they went back to it as a par-5 rather than making it another brutal par-4 like so many out here."
He then offered the typical wisdom at the U.S. Open - the pre-Mike Davis set-up era advice - that you win this tournament where you more often win by making the least mistakes rather than the most birdies. "You have to minimize the mistakes, manage myself around, control my misses and salvage pars the hard way," he confirmed.
In that respect, Congressional will play more like the Oakmonts, Winged Foots (Winged Feet?) and Oakland Hillses of the world. We'll see an old-school '80s Open, right down to the ghastly gauntlet of trees framing every hole like wooden goal posts. Congressional's main architectural drawback is nothing chain saws, termites or lightning strikes can't fix. You can't win here if you don't stay out of the trees, yet Phil, interestingly, will be riding the Show Dog - hitting driver all day long.
"I've found it's a little more playable for me with the driver, because I don't have to be perfect," he confided. "If I miss the fairway with the 2-iron, I'm so far back that I'm not able to reach the green. If I miss the driver, I'm 50 yards closer and can advance it up by the green and salvage pars."
And so the most mercurial show in golf begins, at the tournament usually won by the steady and the plodding. He's still Phil the Thrill, but, sadly for Phil's legion of ardent Phans, other guys have lifted the trophy. You know how much he wants it, but therein lies the dilemma.
"If you focus so much on the result, on winning, you can get in your own way," he admitted, Winged Foot clearly being Exhibit A. "I'm trying not to think so much about winning as much as I am trying to enjoy the challenge that lies ahead."
That's the attitude to take. As writer Umberto Eco said, "When you have little time, that's when you have to be the most patient." Or as the Buddhists believe, those who seek immortality can never attain it because the very act of wanting it, desiring it, longing for it makes the seeker unworthy. They sought it for their own greater glory, not the World's.
So Phil will embark on what - on paper - is his one of the best chances he could ask for in to win the U.S. Open. He's had all the practice he needed, he's continued his tradition of a fun round on Wednesday at a cool course nearby, this time Columbia Country Club, and rumor is he even went with Bubba Watson to the White House for a Lefty Golf Summit.
Hmmm . . . last time a President had folks over to the White House a dark horse won it. Maybe Presidents should meet the winning golfer after the tournament? Like with every other sport? You don't see Duke and UConn showing up at the White House the week of the Sweet 16 only to have - oops! - a Michigan State or Maryland win the title.
Anyway, a Phil win sure would make people stop missing Tiger in a hurry. He's the un-Tiger, the Anti-Tiger. His life, refreshingly, is somewhat of an open book. He's forthright with the media. He answers questions directly and truthfully. He is who he tells us he is; he's not one person to the media and corporate types and another person altogether when he thinks he's in private. His postcard-perfect family is an inspiration every time they unite on an 18th green in celebration.
If Phil wins at Congressional, he validates Congressional as a major venue and the USGA would be back here PDQ. So you know Congressional is rooting for him. But they still should cut down all the trees. That way, more people could see Phil hit golf shots, and the course would look greener.
In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Phil. We'll certainly enjoy your present to us; you always put on a good show.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.