Phil Mickelson believes winning the US Open to complete the career grand slam is the only thing which can redefine his career, but whether it would restore his reputation remains up for debate.
While Brooks Koepka won a second consecutive title and Tommy Fleetwood equalled the lowest score in tournament history at Shinnecock Hills last year, the unwelcome abiding memory was of Mickelson’s antics during the third round.
The five-time major winner, who was already four over par for the day on his 48th birthday, badly overhit a putt on the 13th hole which was set to roll off the parched green.
However, Mickelson prevented that happening by running after the ball and hitting it while it was still rolling, a breach of rule 14-5 which incurs a two-shot penalty.
Such a flagrant and deliberate act was met with gasps of surprise in the media centre and fierce criticism from several quarters, former US PGA champion Steve Elkington among those calling for Mickelson to be disqualified and accusing him of “trying to embarrass the USGA”.
David Fay said on Fox Sports he would have “lobbied for disqualification” if a similar incident had occurred while he was executive director of the USGA, adding: “I think the current language of [rule] 14-5 is too friendly.”
5 days until the #USOpen! At the 5th championship in 1899, Willie Smith won by 11 strokes - the largest margin of victory until Tiger Woods won by 15 in 2000. #RoadToPebbleBeach pic.twitter.com/WFvp0i9LgN— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) 8 June 2019
Mickelson was unrepentant in the immediate aftermath, claiming he was using the rules to his advantage and telling his critics to “toughen up”, although a few days later he sent a message to a handful of American journalists offering his apologies.
Nevertheless, the feeling lingered that Mickelson had been sending a message to the USGA over the way they set up courses for the US Open, an event where he has finished runner-up a record six times.
The last of those came at Merion in 2013, a month before he won the Open Championship at Muirfield to complete the third leg of a career grand slam which has only been achieved by Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
His attempts to join golf’s most exclusive club have produced a best finish of 28th – at Pinehurst in 2014 – and he even opted to miss the 2017 US Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, but this year’s venue could hardly offer Mickelson a better chance of victory.
A three-shot victory over England’s Paul Casey in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am earlier this season was Mickelson’s fifth in the event and he was also runner-up in 2016 and 2018, although the course will be set up far tougher in June than it was in February.
“I do think about what I have to do to win a US Open and it’s getting increasingly difficult,” Mickelson said. “But we’re on a golf course at Pebble where you really don’t need to hit a lot of drivers. So it gives me a chance. It lessens my weakness, which is hitting fairways.
“And you need to putt poa annua greens very well with a lot of break, which is something I’ve done well.”
Standing in Mickelson’s way of course will be another 155 players, most notably Masters champion Woods and reigning champion Koepka, who is trying to become only the second player ever to win three straight US Open titles.
Koepka’s successful title defence in last month’s US PGA at Bethpage made it four major victories in his last eight appearances and the big-hitting American was also joint second behind Woods at Augusta.
Woods did not play competitively between the Masters and the US PGA, which has shifted in the calendar from August to May, meaning a missed cut at Bethpage did not come as a big surprise.
But the 15-time major winner famously won by a record 15 shots in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach and made sure his game was sharp by entering the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
All signs point to a thrilling third major of the season and maybe, just maybe, Mickelson finally lifting the US Open trophy on his 49th birthday.
A third round of 70 left Koepka on 12 under par and seven shots ahead of world number one Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner, Luke List and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, with England’s Matt Wallace and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama a shot further back.
Greg Norman famously lost a six-shot lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters, but asked if he had any doubts about completing a wire-to-wire victory on Sunday, Koepka said: “No. I feel confident. I feel good. I feel excited.
“I don’t know what the (weather) forecast is but if I can hit a few fairways, there’s really a couple of key holes out here. If you play seven well, play 10 and 12 well, then from there you just hit the centre of the greens and try to par this place to death.
“I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that. I’d love to force it on the field and make it where it’s as big as a lead as I possibly can get. It would be nice to be able to make a 10 on the last hole and be okay.
“But I’m just playing to play good golf and wherever that puts me, I’ll be satisfied if I just go play one more good round.
“If you start treating tomorrow’s round differently than every other round, I feel like that’s where I would maybe be nervous.
“It’s just like any other round I’ve ever played. It’s 18 holes. Try to hit the fairway. Try to hit the green and try to make birdie.”
Defending champion Brooks Koepka continued to tear up the record books as he took a stranglehold on the US PGA Championship and made a mockery of Bethpage’s fearsome reputation.
Koepka followed his course record of 63 on Thursday with a second round of 65 for a halfway total of 128, two shots better than the previous lowest in major history shared by Nick Faldo, Brandt Snedeker, Martin Kaymer, Jordan Spieth and Gary Woodland.
At 12 under par the 29-year-old enjoyed a seven-shot lead over Spieth and Adam Scott, surpassing the previous biggest 36-hole lead in tournament history of five shots set by Nick Price in 1994.
Koepka also finished a staggering 17 shots ahead of playing partner and Masters champion Tiger Woods, who missed the cut after adding a 73 to his opening 72.
Woods had been the only player to finish under par when he won the 2002 US Open at Bethpage, with Lucas Glover winning on four under when the tournament returned to the same venue seven years later.
Koepka, who is seeking a fourth major victory in his last eight starts, said: “Today was a battle. I did not hit it very well today, I was fighting a bit of a block. I was able to find a couple of fairways and when I did miss I was in a great lie. I’m still putting really well which is big.
Stone cold Brooks Koepka is looking for another Wanamaker. pic.twitter.com/RMuURrT6oE— PGA Championship (@PGAChampionship) 17 May 2019
“I feel good, especially the way I battled today, to not have it and get that score I am very proud of myself. I fought hard, I feel great and just need to continue on the weekend.”
Scott had the chance to equal or even better Branden Grace’s all-time major record of 62 – set in the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale – when he played the first 14 holes in seven under par, only to miss from two feet for par on the 17th and have to settle for a 64.
Spieth had earlier breathed new life into his bid to become the sixth player to complete a career grand slam thanks to a 66, the 25-year-old having started the week by admitting he was “in a bit of a slump” after failing to record a top-20 finish all season.
Asked if the prospect of joining golf’s most elusive club had crept into his mind, Spieth said: “It certainly hasn’t. I can’t imagine it will because I haven’t been in contention on a Sunday since the Masters last year.
“If I’m able to put some good work in tomorrow, then I will be in contention on Sunday and at that point, it will be just more (thinking) of trying to win a golf tournament. It won’t matter to me what tournament it is.”
England’s Matt Wallace shares fourth place with world number one Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger and Kelly Kraft, although the quartet are eight shots off the pace, with Justin Rose another stroke back and Tommy Fleetwood on two under.
Rory McIlroy looked set to miss the cut when he limped to the turn in 40 after dropping five shots in his first three holes, but the four-time major winner produced a hat-trick of birdies from the fourth and picked up another shot on the eighth.
“I just needed to see one putt to go in, to see something hit the bottom of the hole and that was on the fourth,” McIlroy said after making the weekend with nothing to spare. “From there I started to play some good golf.
“I had a horrendous start, five over after three, but came back well and the goal after those three holes was to be here for the weekend and it looks like I have done that, which is nice.”