By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — There's a 14-year-old playing in the U.S. Open, as if Phil Mickelson needs a reminder about youth, time and wasted chances. He's had more than his share of the latter in the 21 times he has played this tournament, and all he can hope when he turns 42 on Saturday is that his birthday present is a late tee time among the leaders.
It's not that Mickelson hasn't won major championships. He's got three green jackets and his name on the PGA Championship trophy, enough bling to satisfy most golfers in an era dominated by one golfer.
He's done having to explain why he was the best player never to win a major, something that to Mickelson seemed harder than talking about how he was going to save the Social Security system. No longer does he have to wonder privately if he was ever going to get his breakthrough win in one of the tournaments that matter most.
That unpleasant task now belongs to guys like No. 1-ranked Luke Donald or Lee Westwood, who once held that ranking himself. Both great players, both short of the one win that will stamp them forever as great players.
"Maybe I'll never win one. Maybe I will," Westwood said. "I've got no answer to that. Keep working hard and trying to get myself into the position. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Winning majors is never easy, if only because there are only four of them a year and they tend to bring out a strong field. Winning the brutal test that is the U.S. Open is even harder.
Someone will emerge Sunday with the trophy, though getting there may not be pretty. The Lake course at Olympic Club, with its sloping fairways, slippery greens and thick rough, penalizes every wayward shot, every mistake. Perched on the side of a sand dune, it might be called a thinking man's course, though some of the thoughts won't necessarily be for public consumption.
History suggests almost anyone — save for the qualifiers like teenager Andy Zhang or club pro Dennis Miller — can win the Open here. Jack Fleck did it in 1955, beating the great Ben Hogan, and Scott Simpson beat Tom Watson to win his only major championship at Olympic in 1987.
Whether for career or psychological reasons, though, some need a win this week more than others.
Mickelson would be near the top of that list, simply because he's getting to an age where winning such a penal tournament becomes problematic. Unlike the last time the Open was played on the West Coast, Lefty brought his driver along this time, proof that for once he may not be overthinking this one.
Not that he would entertain the idea that he's a favorite. He's been down that path too many times, at too many majors where he was supposed to win.
He might have won the Masters this year if he hadn't aimed for a bunker instead of the green on the fourth hole of the final round. He could have won a few Opens by now had he not missed some short putts or pulled out his driver at the wrong time, most notably on the 18th hole of his epic collapse in 2006 at Winged Foot.
So many near misses, so few Opens left to finally correct them.
"I feel like I've developed a good game plan as to how I want to play the golf course," Mickelson said. "I feel that I should be able to play to that game plan and post a number that I feel will be competitive. I don't know if it will win."
Perhaps no one needs this Open more than Tiger Woods.
He's coming in off a high, winning the Memorial two weeks ago with a chip-in that took its rightful place among his more iconic shots. After a debacle at the Masters, where he screamed at shots, kicked clubs and generally acted like a spoiled brat, he seems to have gotten his game and his act together in time for the official start of the summer major season.
He was once thought of as a lock to break the record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, but he's been stuck at 14 since winning the Open four years ago at Torrey Pines in what now seems like a lifetime ago. But he's yet to prove he can win again in the only place it has ever mattered for Woods — in the majors.
"I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, 'You're not to 18 yet' or 'When will you get to 19?' " Woods said. "It's always something with you guys."
As if Woods needed a reminder, Nicklaus was in the media room Wednesday reminiscing about his four Open titles and how he won them. He was introduced as the greatest player of all time and he will always be, until someone wins more of the tournaments that really count than he did.
Woods once talked about finishing his career early and moving on, but the harder winning has become for him, the longer his sights are set.
"Well, Jack did it at 46, right? So I've got 10 (years)," Woods said. "Watson almost pulled it off at 59. It can be done. We can play for a very long time."
With each passing major, though, that time becomes shorter. There have been 15 majors since Woods last won at Torrey Pines, and he's no closer to his career goal of passing Nicklaus than he was the day he beat Rocco Mediate on one leg in a playoff.
Unlike Mickelson, Donald and Westwood he's got three Open titles in the record books.
That doesn't mean he's not just as desperate to win this one as he was his first.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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