Hello, old friend.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, Phil Mickelson drove into the parking lot of a place many believe has haunted him for the past 14 years.
When Mickelson eased his courtesy car into a parking spot near the Winged Foot clubhouse, it was the first time he’d been on the grounds since the evening he drove away after his famous 72nd-hole implosion to lose the 2006 U.S. Open.
That was the fourth of Mickelson’s record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, the only major championship he needs to become the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam.
Before the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Mickelson acknowledged that his window of opportunity to complete the grand slam was closing and that Pebble Beach and Winged Foot might represent his last realistic chances.
He was 49 then, didn’t win at Pebble and is now 50 with a Champions Tour victory recently added to his 44 career PGA Tour wins and five major championships.
Is this week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Mickelson’s last stand?
Is it his last best chance to win a U.S. Open?
At 50, is the window almost closed?
“If I were to win this week, it would be a bonus,’’ Mickelson told The Post upon arriving at Winged Foot with a lot of baggage and 14-year-old score to settle. “That’s the way I’m looking at it. I have an opportunity to have a bonus win that I didn’t expect in my career if I can put it all together this week.’’
Mickelson is treating the U.S. Open the way he always looked at the British Open, which in his mind was the least-attainable major of the four because links golf didn’t suit his high-ball-flight game.
Then, when Mickelson won the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, it was a bonus — a special and unexpected victory that he’s cherished possibly more than the three Masters he’s won.
Playing in his 28th career U.S. Open this week, that’s the way he now views this major that’s been so cruelly elusive.
“How I feel about my career and how people look at me is not going to change whether I have a U.S. Open win or not,’’ Mickelson said. “But it would be a nice bonus, something that I would love. It will be a real challenge for me, like winning the British Open was a challenge for me, learning how to play links golf.
“Winning at Winged Foot with this kind of rough, I’ll have to have one of the greatest driving weeks of my career. I need to drive the ball in play. Some U.S. Opens I’ve been able to do it and a lot of times I haven’t. That’s what I’ll be focusing on. If I can hit 10 out of 14 fairways a day, I’m going to have a good chance to win the golf tournament. And if I cannot, then I probably won’t.
“But I almost won Winged Foot in ’06 driving it very poorly, so it can only get better. But that was also my best short-game week.’’
In 2006, Mickelson opted not to carry a 3-wood in his bag, instead going from driver to 4-wood. He hit driver on that fateful 72nd hole — and his tee shot bounced off a hospitality tent — because 4-wood wouldn’t have been long enough to reach the dogleg and give him a look at the green.
He said he’ll have a 3-wood in the bag this week.
“I have a pretty good game plan on how I’m going to play this course effectively,’’ he said. “Certainly, getting the ball in play is first and foremost in that game plan.’’
Asked what his emotions will be like stepping onto the first tee for his 1:27 p.m. opening-round tee time on Thursday, Mickelson said, “I’m going to be focused and ready, but I’ve got to play my best golf this week to have a chance.’’
Rory McIlroy, who’s had a relationship to the Masters similar to what Mickelson has had with U.S. Opens in that it’s the one major that has slipped from his grasp, has some understanding of Mickelson’s plight.
“Phil has been so close in this tournament so many times, and you could argue that this [Winged Foot in ’06] was his best chance,’’ McIlroy said. “I think Phil at 50, I’m sure he’s made his peace with the fact that he may never win this tournament. He may … [he] could go out this weekend and blitz it.
“But at the same time, I think when you get to that stage in your life … and his life has gone the way it has — his career, his family, everything seems to be in a good place — he’s probably made his peace with what happened here 14 years ago.’’
This week, they meet again.