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No. 2 will soon be No. 1 for Lefty

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Phil Mickelson can get on any golf course he wants at the snap of a finger, or perhaps more realistically, with a single phone call.

When you've won five major championships and established yourself as one of the game's most popular figures for two decades, a tee time at even the most exclusive clubs is simply not a problem.

So there was at least a sense of bemused surprise this week at Quail Hollow when Mickelson declared that he had tried to get on Pinehurst No. 2 in conjunction with his visit to the Wells Fargo Championship -- and couldn't.

"I've tried to get down there three times now, and the course has been booked all three times, so I don't know when I'll get down there," Lefty said of the venue for next month's U.S. Open.

Huh?

"I've been trying, but the course is booked. There are 300 people on the golf course; they won't let me out there!"

OK, so there is perhaps more going on here. Sure, Mickelson could get on the historic venue that will host the U.S. Open for the third time and where he hopes for that elusive title after six runner-up finishes in the national championship.

He clearly could secure a tee time, perhaps even a foursome. The powers that be would make that happen. "I could probably get a tee time and join a group, if guys would let me join 'em," he joked.

But they're not going to clear out the entire course for him, at least not yet. That day is coming, when Pinehurst No. 2 will be closed to the public. In early May, however, six weeks before the first round of the U.S. Open, you can expect the resort is going to maximize its revenue.

For example, the No. 2 course has several outings planned in the coming days -- including Monday and Tuesday, when a slew of PGA Tour players heading to the Players Championship might have been compelled to stop by.

"I was just surprised at how much play there is right now, because they're booked," Mickelson said. "I was able to get a tee time at 2:10 one day, which just didn't make sense. I'm not going to get anything done in a few hours."

Mickelson, of course, knows better. Perhaps he is trying to send a message about the heavy play on a course so close to the staging of a major championship venue. Or it could be that Lefty is just having some fun at our expense.

What is not up for debate is that Mickelson and the U.S. Open will be a big story in the weeks leading up to the second major championship of 2014. It might be the story.

That was all but guaranteed last June when not only did Mickelson finish second again in heartbreaking fashion at Merion, but a month later went on to win the Open Championship at Muirfield.

That put him a U.S. Open victory away from the career Grand Slam. Given that only five players in the history of the game have managed that feat, it's a pretty big prize to chase. And with it looking ominous for Tiger Woods' participation in the tournament due to recent back surgery, Phil's pursuit of history becomes even bigger.

"It would mean a lot to win the national championship, complete the career Grand Slam, and I've said that for a while, so I'm not going to deny it," Mickelson said. "And I do believe it will happen, whether it's Pinehurst or at an upcoming national championship ... I'm not sure where it will happen, but I am confident it will."

Perhaps that is Mickelson's way of taking some of the pressure off this year. He's not making it all about winning at Pinehurst. And yet it's hard not to think of this as anything but the best remaining opportunity.

At 43 -- he'll turn 44 during the week of the U.S. Open -- how many more chances will he get? Pinehurst No. 2 is a venue he loves; he finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999 there. Next year, the tournament goes to Chambers Bay, a new course for the U.S. Open in Washington state.

Mickelson is happy with the restoration work done by architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, which ought to allow his short game to thrive on a course with virtually no rough. When the Open was played there in 2005, those characteristics were largely missing from the setup Mickelson played in 1999.

And despite missing the cut at the Masters and shooting 75 Friday at Quail Hollow, nobody thinks Mickelson's time winning tournaments, or winning majors, is done.

The last of his 42 PGA Tour titles came at the Open, but Mickelson has shown enough flashes of strong play that winning the U.S. Open is not out of the question. His 67-75 showing through two rounds here is simply Phil being Phil. "I can't understand the difference in putting from yesterday to day," he lamented.

So it doesn't much matter how Mickelson fares here over the weekend or next week at the Players Championship. Or even at the Memorial and FedEx St. Jude -- the two tournaments he is expected to play leading up to the U.S. Open. Win or lose, good or bad, you can bet that Lefty will soon be focused on Pinehurst.

"It's going to be fun, and he'll look at it as a fun challenge, too," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, who has caddied for Mickelson since he played his first event as a professional at the 1992 U.S. Open. "His track record in the U.S. Open is really good, short of winning. I think he goes there every year and thinks he can compete to a high level and win."

Part of the preparation has typically entailed going to the major site in advance of the tournament. He doesn't just play casual rounds of golf, but spends up to eight hours charting the greens, playing shots from various locations and tees. He usually does this over two days.

So, no ... trying to wedge in a tee time right now in the days preceding or following the Wells Fargo Championship when Pinehurst is relatively full -- even for Phil Mickelson -- isn't going to work.

According to the United States Golf Association, Pinehurst No. 2 will have very limited play starting May 26 and will be closed to all but competitors starting June 2.

But you can bet Mickelson will be back at Pinehurst later this month -- perhaps the week of the Memorial? -- to prepare for what will likely be a week dominated by Mickelson talk.