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US Open at Chambers Bay: Can Phil Mickelson complete the set?

By Phil Casey

At Augusta National in April, almost all eyes were on Rory McIlroy as he attempted to win the Masters to complete the career grand slam.

Next week at Chambers Bay, those same eyes will primarily be focused on Phil Mickelson as he attempts, after six runners-up finishes, to win the one major title to so far elude him.

The common denominator taking away some of the spotlight? That would be the performance of 14-time major winner Tiger Woods, whose continuing struggles are like seeing the aftermath of a car crash; you know you should look away, but you just can't.

Mickelson's season had been nothing to write home about until he finished joint second in the Masters, despite recording a lower total than required to win any of his previous three green jackets.

But for Woods a share of 17th at Augusta has unequivocally been the outstanding highlight of an otherwise miserable campaign which has lurched from one embarrassing low to another.

First there was the career-worst round of 82 in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where the former world number one appeared to be suffering from the 'yips' with his short game.

Then came a withdrawal with more back problems after just 11 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open, followed by a month out of action as the 39-year-old desperately worked on his game out of the glare of tournament golf.

Woods bravely returned to competition in the Masters and, after pointedly heading straight to the short game area on the range when he arrived at the course, entered the final round in a tie for fifth before carding a closing 73.

It was progress nevertheless, but after finishing 69th of the 75 players to make the cut in the Players Championship, Woods slumped to a new career low with a third round of 85 in the Memorial Tournament.

Quite what Woods will make of Chambers Bay is anybody's guess, but the statistics are hardly encouraging. During the two days of strokeplay at the 2010 US Amateur, the scoring average was 79.25. There were more rounds in the 90s (six) than there were under par (five). Only four players broke 70 and only Patrick Reed shot three under.

Woods has at least spent some time practising at the course, taking seven hours to play one round and completing another 18 holes the following day, noting that USGA executive director Mike Davis has said players would need to spend more time than usual preparing to tackle a relatively unknown layout with lots of different tees.

''When Mike says something like that you have to pay attention because he's a smart guy," Woods said.

"We spent a lot of time there, did a lot of homework. It's very challenging because Mike has so many options. We don't see this even at (the Open Championship) because the greens aren't banked like this.''

Mickelson felt last year's US Open at Pinehurst provided him with the "best opportunity" to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in winning a career grand slam, but was also typically upbeat after checking out Chambers Bay.

"I really like it. I think it's wonderful," Mickelson said.

"The first time you play it, it's like St. Andrews. You don't know where to go. You don't know what mounds do to the ball. Then the more you play it, the more you like it and you appreciate it, you understand where the balls are going to go and what type of shot is the highest percentage shot and how to get to certain pins.

"I can see why the first impression (of Chambers Bay) isn't as favourable for some. But I think the more you play it, the more you like it."

Whatever Mickelson thinks, world number one McIlroy will still go into the event as favourite, despite having missed the cut in his last two competitive appearances in the BMW PGA Championship and Irish Open.

McIlroy has also failed to record a top-20 finish in the US Open since his eight-shot win at Congressional in 2011, but won the last two majors of 2014 and was another victim of Jordan Spieth's brilliance at the Masters, finishing fourth with a 12-under-par total which would have won each of the previous three years.

Spieth is one of a handful of players with previous competitive experience of Chambers Bay, albeit when shooting rounds of 72 and 83 to fail to advance to the match play stage.

But the world number two's caddie Michael Greller has more experience of the course having caddied there for several years while on summer holidays from his day job as a school teacher, which he eventually gave up when joining forces with Spieth full-time at the end of 2012.

Ian Poulter may have summed up the opinion of some of his fellow professionals when they described Chambers Bay as a "complete farce," but in the same Twitter post the controversial Ryder Cup star also provided a more salient point. "I guess someone has to win."


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