- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Lefty is just one solid loop from golf history.

Posting one of only two sub-par rounds carded around wicked Winged Foot, Phil Mickelson closed in on a momentous third straight major title yesterday at the 106th U.S. Open, pulling alongside mystery Brit Kenneth Ferrie heading into today’s finale.

“I’m very happy and excited to have fought hard on the back nine to get back in contention tied for the lead,” said Mickelson, who turned in a platinum homeward 33 en route to a 69 that left him even with Ferrie at 2-over 212. “It’s so much fun to be in the final group Sunday at an Open.”

Mickelson is certainly familiar with the feeling. The 36-year-old left-hander, who is attempting to join Ben Hogan (1953) and Tiger Woods (2000-01) as the only players in history to collect three consecutive modern major titles, has gone out in one of the event’s two final pairings on three previous occasions (1999, 2002 and 2004). Each time, Lefty came up just short, finishing second to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst, Woods at Bethpage and Retief Goosen at Shinnecock Hills.

But that incarnation of Mickelson is a thing of the past. The present Lefty has looked unshakable in the game’s last three Slams, claiming his second major title at the PGA Championship last August, his second green jacket at Augusta National in April and stringing together 54 holes of intrepid play this week at the most difficult major venue the golf world has seen since the outlandish British Open setup at Carnoustie in 1999.

“Every year, one time a year, we get tested like this, and I love it,” said Mickelson of the 7,264-yard, par-70 track likely to produce the first over-par Open champion since 1978 (Andy North’s 1-over at Cherry Hills). “I love being tested at the highest level of the most difficult and sometimes ridiculous golf course setups we’ll ever see. I love it because I get to find out where my game is at and where my head is at.”

Given Mickelson’s Slam streak, neither his game nor his once-dubious constitution are in question. And given his present company, perhaps neither is today’s outcome.

Ferrie is as raw and unproven as Mickelson is Slam seasoned. And while it’s certainly worth noting that both three-time major champion Vijay Singh (215) and Open maven Colin Montgomerie (215) are lurking just three strokes behind the co-leaders, little about the Open’s 54-hole leader board likely cost him much sleep last night.

Not only has the 27-year-old Ferrie never played in the last group at a major, he has hardly ever played in a major at all. Ferrie, a native of Ashington, England, is making his first start at a U.S. Open this week. He does have two regular European Tour victories (2003 Canaris Open de Espana and the 2005 Smurfit European Open), but his only meaningful major experience was a tie for 42nd at the 2004 British Open.

In five previous Open frays at Winged Foot, the Westchester County course has not fancied men with such flimsy credentials, selecting instead proven champions Bobby Jones (1929 U.S. Open), Billy Casper (1959 U.S. Open), Hale Irwin (1974 U.S. Open) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1984 U.S. Open).

“I’m going to go out there tomorrow, and I don’t think many people are going to give me a chance to win,” said Ferrie, a player best known in Europe for his Superman belt buckle, massive offseason weight loss (56 pounds), quick, short swing and similar temper. “It’s the first time I’m in this situation. I have no idea myself how I’m going to handle it. I could go out there and play lovely. I could go out there and totally shrink in the limelight.”

Of course, a major upset by a player of Ferrie’s caliber wouldn’t be totally without precedent; unknown Jack Fleck beat mighty Ben Hogan head-to-head in a playoff (69-72) in the 1955 Open at the Olympic Club. And just two years ago at the British Open, similarly lightly decorated Todd Hamilton played David to Ernie Els’ Goliath. But golf’s annals are stocked with far more Jason Gores than Flecks and Hamiltons. Gore was the Nationwide Tour mystery man who played in the final group of last year’s U.S. Open, only to have Pinehurst drop 84 strokes worth of reality on his scorecard.

“I don’t know Kenneth, but he’s in the final group of a U.S. Open, so he must be some kind of player,” said Mickelson of his finale counterpart.

With Singh and Monty three back, many feel Lefty’s stiffest challenge could come from Australian Geoff Ogilvy (213), a player who proved his mettle at the World Match Play Championship earlier this season. But most feel that Lefty’s ultimate competitor today could be fate. Credulity simply seems to balk at the notion that after nearly 50 years passed between Hogan’s threepeat and Tiger’s pseudo-Slam, Lefty would follow in Woods’ footsteps so quickly.

“Let’s just wait another 24 hours and see if I put together another good round,” said Mickelson. “I’m not thinking about those past tournaments or what have you. I’m trying to just play one more good round.”

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