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Mickelson could write fairytale finish to U.S. Open quest

Jun 4, 2016; Dublin, OH, USA; Phil Mickelson tees off on the first hole during the third round of The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 4, 2016; Dublin, OH, USA; Phil Mickelson tees off on the first hole during the third round of The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Golf's new 'Big Three' may vie for the U.S. Open title next week at Oakmont, but one golf historian says a triumph by the Big Lefty, Phil Mickelson, would bring the most heartwarming ending.

World number two Jordan Spieth looks to defend his Open title, Australian Jason Day will try to underline his status as number one and No. 3 Rory McIlroy hungers for his fifth major among golf's new wave leaders.

But a victory by Mickelson, a U.S. Open runner-up a record six times, would resonate across generations and cap off an odyssey decades in the making.

"I don't think anything would be a bigger story than if Phil won here at Oakmont this year," Michael Trostel, director of the United States Golf Association (USGA) Museum, told Reuters.

Victory for Mickelson, who will turn 46 the day of the opening round at Oakmont, would make him the oldest U.S. Open winner and the sixth player to complete a career grand slam of all four major professional crowns.

Oakmont glory would allow Mickelson to wipe away the bridesmaid tag and put his name alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on the career grand slam list.

Trostel says that despite lacking a title, one could already view Mickelson as one of the most remarkable competitors in U.S. Open lore.

"He's arguably one of the greatest U.S. Open players of all time," said Trostel. "It's hard to say because he hasn't had a win, but you look at the record - he has 10 top-10 finishes, tied with Ernie Els among players in his generation."

The closest players to him on the Open runner-up list with four such finishes form another imposing group - Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus.

"The big comparable is Sam Snead. The others, Bob Jones, Nicklaus and Palmer, they all won (an Open).

"You look at Snead with the four runner-up finishes and Snead talked about 'I have no regrets in my career except for not winning the U.S. Open.'

"When you listen to Phil talk about it, he says, 'This is the event I dreamt of winning as a kid.'"

Trostel said the 20th-ranked Mickelson puts a lot of pressure on himself to win, but has repeatedly given himself chances, coming second as recently as 2013 behind Justin Rose at Merion.

HEARTBREAKING NEAR-MISSES

Among all the runner-up results have been some heartbreaking near-misses since his first U.S. Open appearance as an amateur in 1990.

In 1999 at Pinehurst, he lost on the 72nd hole to Payne Stewart for his first U.S. Open second-place finish.

At the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, he squandered the lead on the last with a wild drive and an unnecessarily daring rescue shot that led to a double-bogey and a fourth runner-up showing.

Trostel said it would be foolish to count out Mickelson, who has made the U.S. Open cut 23 of 25 times, and whose five major titles include three Masters.

"He shows flashes ... when he gets hot, there's no cooling him down," he said. "We'll see. I know he's trying to peak for this."

The USGA museum director said putting has often let Mickelson down in the Open's final stages and would be the most crucial test at Oakmont.

"These greens at Oakmont are undulating, but more than anything else, they're quick, very fast," he said. "Probably the quickest greens at a U.S. Open these players will see."

Trostel said players are bound to face sizeable par-putts crucial for success. "That's where Phil is going to have to thrive, going to have to make upwards of 80, 90 percent of those to be up there," he said.

But Trostel added that if Mickelson gets into contention once again, the fans could well lift him.

"His record in the U.S. Open is incredibly impressive. He's a beloved figure, among the fans he's extremely popular.

"There probably could be no more popular champion than Phil this year at Oakmont."

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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