- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Lefty brought his Masters magic to Shinnecock.

Playing the same brand of ruthlessly efficient golf he used to author his major breakthrough in Augusta this April, Phil Mickelson battered fairways and greens at Shinnecock Hills yesterday en route to a second-round 66 and a share of the lead at the midpoint of the 104th U.S. Open.

“It’s been a good start, but I know this golf course still has not shown its teeth. There hasn’t been any wind,” said Mickelson, who shares the weekend pole position at 6 under (134) with Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama (66-68). “We all know how difficult Saturday and Sunday are at a U.S. Open, and that’s going to be magnified because of the wind that’s expected to blow here. If it blows, it’s going to be brutal.”

Considering yesterday’s performance, it seems not even a hurricane could disturb Mickelson’s methodical march toward a second straight major uprising. Ever since the back nine at Augusta National, Lefty has looked like a different man and carried himself with a newfound combination of patience and peace. Yesterday he shrugged off an opening-hole bogey, completed his fog-suspended first round and then bathed the 6,996-yard, par-70 layout in bogey-free brilliance during his second-round surge up the leader board.

Even though Shinnecock’s claws were sheathed on a sunny, windless day, Mickelson made carding 66 on one of the world’s most treacherous layouts look laughably easy. He missed only three fairways and three greens with his newfound conservative major approach, carded a handful of point-blank birdies and almost seemed to float around the layout on a cloud of confidence and gallery adulation.

Fans first embraced Mickelson as their trans-Tiger favorite when he last came to Long Island for the 2002 Open at Bethpage. Back then, they were rallying around his career-long quest to win a major. At Shinnecock, they have ratcheted up the support yet another notch, both celebrating his recent Slam success and sensing his arrival as the game’s new major master.

“Winning the Masters was awesome, but rather than dwell on that accomplishment as the pinnacle, I’m hoping it was only the first giant step on the path up the mountain,” said Mickelson, who is trying to go 2-for-2 in the majors this season after famously beginning his career 0-for-46. “What happened at Augusta certainly reinforced my confidence, but I feel like it was just a continuation of the way I’ve played and felt all season.”

Mickelson credits scaling back his attacking style with swing coach Rick Smith and stressing his short putting with short game guru Dave Pelz as the keys to both his victory at the Masters and his success all season (10 top-10s). And he’s hesitant to attribute his cresting confidence to one back nine of brilliance at Augusta National. But his fellow competitors are quick to point to his Masters triumph as the primary cause to fear him this week.

“Once you win a major, you know you can do it, and there’s no question that there’s a major psychological jump that you make,” said three-time major champion Ernie Els (137), who surged into contention yesterday with a 67. “Once you overcome that obstacle, you’re never the same player again, and I’m sure Phil is feeling that swell of confidence. There’s nothing like it because suddenly you can approach the game without any doubts. There’s major power there.”

Els, the victim of Mickelson’s back-nine heroics at the Masters, would like nothing better than another Sunday showdown with Lefty.

“Sure, I got knifed pretty bad there,” Els said. “But I don’t care who’s up there as long as I have another chance. I certainly feel like I’m playing well enough to win.”

He’s just one of many who feel that way after a rare day of red-number assaults at a U.S. Open. The board below Mickelson and Maruyama is crowded with high-profile suitors to the crown, including near-miss master Jeff Maggert (135), Maryland native Fred Funk (136), 2001 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (136) and two-time major champion Vijay Singh (138).

Even Sergio Garcia (140) and Tiger Woods (141) rebounded from their disappointing openers yesterday, sneaking into the weekend mix with sub-par salvos. Woods looked as if he might flirt with the cut (66 players at 145) for much of the day but rallied on his back nine to post a 69 that still leaves him an outside shot to snap his seven-major drought.

“It’s a U.S. Open, man. You just have to stay patient, hang in there and anything can happen,” said Woods, who hasn’t won a major since Bethpage. “If the wind blows, the scores will shoot up, and the leaders could come back to the field very quickly. … If I keep moving forward, I’ll be all right.”

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