- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Two decades into this ride, Phil Mickelson admits the journey now has its mundane moments. He turned pro 20 years ago at the U.S. Open and last month went into the Hall of Fame, so perhaps it is understandable that not every day is met with the same enthusiasm.
That won't be the case Thursday morning at Olympic Club.
Mickelson, who turns 42 on Saturday, has plenty of incentive at the 112th U.S. Open. He's been runner-up in this major championship a record five times. It is a tournament he'd dearly love to win.
If that's not enough, Mickelson is grouped with Tiger Woods and Masters champion Bubba Watson for the first two rounds. And even at the dew-sweeping time of 7:33 a.m. PT, Lefty leaves no doubt as to his feelings about such a star-studded group.
"It's fabulous," he said Tuesday after a practice round. "I'll tell you why. First of all, I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. When it's time to tee off on Thursday, I'll be ready to play.
"One of the issues I've had this year [is] I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won't be this week."
There is no doubt that Tiger brings out the best in Phil. The overall record doesn't say so, but that has been the recent trend. Their rivalry dates to the 1997 PGA Championship, when they played together in competition for the first time and both shot final-round 75s.
It was hardly memorable, but over the years their duels have been entertaining, even if the outcome of a tournament was not always at stake.
That was not the case in February at Pebble Beach, where they played in the same group for the 30th time. Both were in contention, but while Tiger struggled to a 75, Phil shot a tournament-best 64 to win for the 40th time in his PGA Tour career.
They are tied in their head-to-head matchups 13-13-4, which is nothing more than an interesting side note in their careers. Still, it is telling that Mickelson has gone lower in seven of their past 10 rounds together.
Woods is far more stoic when the subject comes up. He is used to a circuslike atmosphere at every tournament he plays, so having Phil and Bubba along for the first two rounds at Olympic won't change much. He doesn't remember the first time they played together and points out that their duels are rare.
"It's different for us to ever be paired up in the same group," Woods said. "That never happens. We [the PGA Tour] try to spread it around a little bit. That's why 2008 was so different for us. Because on the tour we never get that pairing. For us to get that pairing was exciting I think for everyone, and I think this year will be the same."
Woods was referring to the '08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where the United States Golf Association decided to group several players based on their world rankings. Woods was No. 1, Mickelson No. 2 and Adam Scott No. 3, and they played together during the first two rounds.
Since then, the only time they've played together in a major was during the final round of the 2009 Masters, where Mickelson shot 67 to Woods' 68.
"When we first started playing together, I don't know what it was exactly, but I didn't play my best when we were paired together," Mickelson said. "And the last five years or so I've been able to focus clearly when we play. I've been able to enjoy the challenge of playing with him, and I've always enjoyed his company. I've played some of my better golf these last five years with him."
And perhaps that bodes well for this week, as Mickelson attempts to win his first U.S. Open.
There have been some excruciating close calls in this tournament, starting in 1999 at Pinehurst, where Payne Stewart holed a 15-footer for par on the final green to beat Mickelson by a stroke.
Mickelson finished second to Woods in 2002 at Bethpage, second to Retief Goosen in 2004 at Shinnecock, second to Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 at Winged Foot and second in 2009 to Lucas Glover at Bethpage. He also tied for fourth in 2010 at Pebble Beach.
The one that still haunts Mickelson is Winged Foot, where he led the tournament by 1 stroke standing on the 72nd tee, sprayed his drive off a corporate hospitality tent, failed to navigate his second shot around a tree and ended up making a double-bogey to lose by one.
"I really should have won that one," Mickelson said. "The shot that lingers is not the drive off 18 as much as the 3-iron cutting around that tree. Because if I had not hit the tree, if I had made sure I got it around the green, I would have been up by the green with an opportunity to salvage par with my short game -- which was the best it's ever been in my career that week."
The way he played the 18th at Winged Foot is even more painful when you consider that Mickelson lost two majors to players who laid up on the final hole, only to make a long par putt to beat him by one -- Stewart at the '99 U.S. Open and David Toms at the 2001 PGA Championship.
All of that, however, gives Mickelson confidence, especially at layouts where he concedes that his game would not normally be associated with success.
"If you look at my game from 20,000 feet, you'd say, 'Well, that's probably not the best setup for the way he likes to play,'" Mickelson said. "And five times I've had opportunities, I've come close. Could have, should have won a few of those. And it gives me the belief that I can compete and be in contention on Sunday in this tournament."
Not even mentioned Tuesday was the 79 Mickelson shot two weeks ago during the opening round of the Memorial. Afterward, Mickelson cited "mental fatigue" and withdrew (there was also the issue of cellphone cameras), citing his need to get ready for the U.S. Open.
Had Woods done that, you can bet the reaction would have been different.
Mickelson seemed to get a pass, and his stated explanation -- before the cellphone issue was broached -- made sense: He is pretty much all about the major championships at this point.
"He's upfront and very honest, and he's going to tell you the Masters is his very favorite tournament," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson's longtime caddie. "But let's face it: He wants to win majors. He's dead set on his major tally not being four. He is extremely prepared for all the majors. He will be [here]. He will be at [Royal] Lytham [for the British Open]. He will be at Kiawah [for the PGA Championship]. He really, really gets up for them.
"More than anything, he's got a great record in the U.S. Open. He's had a chance to win a number of U.S. Opens. The reality is he knows he's got as good a chance as anyone to do really, really well."
Whether he can navigate Olympic will be interesting to watch. He clearly does not like the par-5 16th hole, which measures 670 yards. The putting surfaces have been changed from poa annua -- which he is used to, being a California native and resident -- to bent, which should benefit the majority of the field more than him.
But then there is the Tiger factor. Perhaps playing with Woods is the inspiration Mickelson needs to get to the weekend and into contention.
"The one player I'm most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger," Mickelson said. "And the fact that we are on the same wavelength, I'm always in favor of. Sometimes we'll get a huge advantage in tee times based on weather conditions or whatnot. If we're in the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Will Phil Mickelson be able to use his rock star pairing with Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson to his advantage? If so, he just might lose that U.S. Open bridesmaid label, writes ESPN.com's Bob Harig.