- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Phil Mickelson is primed to make major history.

Only two players have won three consecutive majors in the Masters era (since 1935). Ben Hogan accomplished the feat in 1953 with the Masters, U.S. Open (Oakmont) and British Open (Carnoustie). The PGA Championship ended the day before the British Open that season, making a Grand Slam bid logistically impossible for Hogan, though his 1949 car accident had long rendered him physically incapable of competing in the PGA’s match-play marathon.

It took nearly 50 years for someone to match Hogan’s feat as Tiger Woods equaled and then surpassed it with his epic Tiger Slam, winning the final three majors of 2000 before tacking on the 2001 Masters. Five years later, Mickelson is looking to add his name to that illustrious, short list this week at the 106th U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

“I’m just trying to win one [major] — I’m not trying to win three,” said Mickelson, attempting to deflect pressure earlier this week. “All I’m trying to do is be successful on this one golf course at this one event.”

Outwardly, Lefty might be trying to downplay the significance of his Slam streak, but his unparalleled amount of prep work at the A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece tells a different story.

Starting with a reconnaissance mission just two weeks after his Masters victory in April, Mickelson made five separate pre-tournament trips to Mamaroneck with swing instructor Rick Smith, short game guru Dave Pelz and caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay to study the 7,264-yard, par-70 layout and map out an Open strategy.

On those five trips, he put in about 10 10-hour days on the course, playing more than a dozen rounds and taking exhaustive notes on every subtlety of the revered parkland plan.

“I had to come out and really learn the nuances here because this course has more subtleties than just about any course I’ve ever played,” said Mickelson, 36. “I feel like I know the course as well as I can. But I still have a great challenge, and the challenge is executing, hitting the shots.”

An unapologetic techno-geek, Mickelson has tweaked his bag in hopes of better achieving that execution. Using the same innovative spirit that led to his successful dual driver approach this year at Augusta National, Mickelson has added a 64-degree wedge to his arsenal to combat Winged Foot’s severe greens and deep rough and bunkers. And if the rain holds off and conditions turn hard and fast, he’ll ditch his 45-inch fade driver for a cut-down, 43-inch fade 2-wood to maximize control off the tees.

“He’s obviously taking it quite seriously,” marveled two-time Open champion Ernie Els (1994 and 1997) of Mickelson’s borderline obsessive approach to this week.

And why not? Lefty’s smart enough to know exactly how difficult it is to stock a major resume in the time of Tiger. He knows a lull in the 10-time major champion’s game when he sees it. And he realizes that a victory this week would mean more than just joining Hogan and Woods on the three-peat list. It would pull him into a dead heat with Woods atop the world rankings, send the golf world into a unparalleled rivalry frenzy (forget Arnie vs. Jack) and propel him to next month’s British Open (Royal Liverpool) with a chance to match the Tiger Slam.

Woods tried Monday to dismiss Mickelson’s majors streak, backhandedly treating it as simply another ephemeral rivalry phase in his career. But Woods knows Mickelson is the first player other than himself to win back-to-back majors in a dozen years (Nick Price in 1994). And while the rest of the field might not stand in awe of Phil the way they genuflect to Tiger, Mickelson has forged a level of respect among his peers over the last nine majors that clearly puts him on a plane never reached by former Tiger rivals David Duval, Els, Vijay Singh or Retief Goosen.

“When he won the 2004 Masters there, it opened up the floodgates,” defending Open champion Michael Campbell said of Mickelson’s shocking major turnaround (Mickelson started his career 0-for-46 in the majors but is 3-of-9 since). “We all knew he could win a major. For the last 10 years, we told him that. But he needed to believe he could win, not us. Once he won, that was it. There’s no stopping Phil now.”

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