- Ron Sirak, Golf
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PINEHURST, N.C. -- There are certain moments in the history of sports that create visual images so strong that time can never erase them from the photo album of memory.
There was Joe Namath running off the field with his index finger held high after his New York Jets upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. Among the many amazing things accomplished by Michael Jordan was the way he held the pose of his follow-through after the game-winning shot in the 1998 NBA finals against Utah. And anyone who saw it will always remember Carlton Fisk jumping and waving his home run fair in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 is rare in that it left us with two images that will linger forever, one perhaps foreshadowing who could win this year's tournament.
Payne's Stewart's winning 20-foot putt on the final hole in 1999 was so dramatic, the knickered Stewart celebrated with a shout and a pumped fist thrust into the air, then reloaded and celebrated again by repeating the shout and gesture. It is totally in keeping with the sometimes over-the-top largeness of Stewart's personality that he would replay the celebration. Too much was never enough for the three-time major championship winner. But it was what he did next that will endure just a permanently as the as the snapshot of his celebration. Stewart took the face of his vanquished opponent Phil Mickelson between his hands and whispered a life lesson to the disappointed left-hander.
Flash back to that tournament and remember that Mickelson played that final round with a beeper in his pocket, vowing that if it went off he would leave the course to be with his wife, Amy, who was about to give birth to their first child. With all that going on, Mickelson nonetheless played a gutsy final round and was beaten only when Stewart made the most improbable of up-and-downs on the final hole. Stunned by the suddenness of the defeat, Mickleson managed a weak smile and looked lost on the 18th green when Stewart grabbed him and told him he was about to experience something even better than winning the U.S. Open fatherhood.
That this all transpired on Father's Day was weird enough. That four short months later Stewart would be killed in a plane accident added to the life lesson of the moment, reminding us all how abruptly this glorious walk we all take can end. That Mickelson would go on to have two more children one who had to fight just to survive birth and would add one green jacket to his closet and the words "Masters champion" to his resume all feel as if they are bringing us back to this week, this place, for a reason. It all feels as if this time it will be Mickelson's time at the U.S. Open.
There is a rhythm to the way of the world that sometimes defies logic. At times there is a seeming inevitability to actions and events as relentless as a rising tide. This U.S. Open feels as if the circle of life would be completed with a Mickelson victory. While it would be simplistic to say that Pinehurst owes Mickelson one, it would be well within the realm of reason to say that the memories that Mickelson carries of that week six years ago will provide the added extra incentive that could carry him to victory. It would be Lefty's Father's Day gift to those who matter most to him: His wife Amy, that first-born child Amanda. And it would be a way to celebrate the memory of Stewart, the man who so eloquently put Mickelson's loss into perspective the last time the Open was played here.
While it feels as if justice would be served if Mickelson won this year's U.S. Open, for those who operate more with their brain than with their heart, there are also a slew of more practical reasons to pick him. The firm, fast greens that slope dramatically to the edges as if someone had flipped a bowl upside down and stuck a flagstick in it will be hard to hit. The players who have the shortest clubs for their approach shots will have an enormous advantage this week. It is almost certain that a long hitter will win here. Mickelson is one of the longest hitters.
The other key element in this U.S. Open will be the short game. For the reasons stated above, a lot of greens will be missed, and that means that everyone will be tested on his up-and-down game. Quite simply, the person who wins at Pinehurst will be the person who makes the most six-foot par putts. This is a U.S. Open and an Open course can almost never be attacked. That is especially true at Pinehurst No. 2. This tournament won't be about who makes the most birdies, but rather will be a matter of who makes the fewest bogeys. Mickelson has the kind of short game that can bail him out when one of those devilish Donald Ross greens rejects one of his approach shots.
Mickelson also has an important thing going for him this year that he lacked in 1999: He has won a major championship. The burden of being the best never to win a major is gone and more importantly, he has the inner belief that come Sunday he can get the job done. He's done it once at The Masters last year and he knows he can do it again.
The last time the U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst No. 2, ending on Father's Day as it always does, Phil Mickelson was not yet a father. And the last time this tournament was played here Aaron and Chelsea Stewart still had a father. And while it is true that nothing in life is given as easily as the gift of life is taken away, there feels like a bit of magic is at play here this year, just as it was in 1999. Somehow it feels as if Phil Mickelson is supposed to hoist that champion's trophy on Sunday and somewhere a man in knickers will be smiling.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine
Fate will intervene at this week's U.S. Open. And that's why Phil Mickelson will leave Pinehurst a champion.