There are 12 former U.S. Open champions in the field at Pebble Beach for the 119th U.S. Open, with 16 titles among them. Tiger Woods (3), Brooks Koepka (2) and Ernie Els (2) are the only multiple-time winners of the bunch, as the other nine golfers — a group that includes Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson — seek to join that exclusive group of multiple-time U.S. Open champions.
But with just 12 former champions in a 156-player field, odds favor a first-time U.S. Open winner on Sunday evening.
No first-time U.S. Open champion would be crowned with more fanfare than Phil Mickelson.
This U.S. Open will be the Mickelson’s fifth try to complete the career grand slam, but there’s a growing feeling that his best chances are all in the past. Mickelson has been a runner-up at the U.S. Open a record six times, but that sixth instance was in 2013 at Merion, a month prior to his first and only Open Championship. In those five tries to complete the career grand slam, Mickelson’s best finish was a T28 at Pinehurst in 2014.
Can’t get enough golf? Subscribe to The First Cut with Kyle Porter where we take a weekly look at everything in the world of golf.
Prior to last year’s U.S. Open, Mickelson identified this three-year run of Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and Winged Foot as the last three tracks where he feels like he can have a chance to win. He was a runner-up at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and Winged Foot in 2006, and his experience at Pebble Beach includes what is now a handful of PGA Tour wins and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open in 2010.
An important aspect to Mickelson’s pursuit of a U.S. Open championship has been his outspoken criticism of the event’s organizers, the USGA. Course setup, conditions of the greens and even rules questions have become off-course and post-round topics for Lefty, who has never been one to hold back. That tension seemed to boil over last year at Shinnecock Hills when Mickelson’s third round started to go south and he was penalized for putting a moving ball.
It was a viral video sensation in the golf world. Did Phil lose his mind? Would he be disqualified? The USGA levied a penalty but no DQ, and Mickelson told reporters that the decision to putt the moving ball was intentional. Mickelson reversed course over time and the matter was mostly forgotten as Brooks Koepka marched to a second-straight U.S. Open title, while Mickelson’s shot at the career grand slam at a course he loves was boiled down to a blooper.
One year later, Mickelson is still a viral sensation, but not because of his gaffes on the golf course. Mickelson picked up his activity on Twitter in the lead-up to his pay-per-view match against Tiger Woods over last Thanksgiving, but the “trash talk” didn’t generate nearly as much engagement as the calf exercise videos of early 2019. His Magnolia Lane pep talk at the Masters had every golf fan talking about “dropping bombs” and laughing at Matt Kuchar. Then at the PGA Championship, he iced his thumbs because of all the thumbs-up celebrating he had for the fans at Bethpage.
What Mickelson has done at the age of 48 — with his 49th birthday coming up this weekend on championship Sunday — is take control of the messaging with social media. Mickelson has no scheduled pre-tournament press conferences or media availability, and so far has opted not to participate in interviews prior to his Thursday morning tee time alongside Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson.
His last bit of media was indeed social, posting a hole-in-one from Jim Nantz’s yard, which is set up like the par-3 7th at Pebble Beach.
Mickelson shutting down the media availability has limited the opportunity for one-liners, antics and media tent chuckles that many golf fans love. But if the absence of the sideshow is what helps Mickelson get in the right mindset to win at the U.S. Open, there won’t be a single golf fan that will blame him for it on Sunday night. Because pretty soon the Twitter videos, press conference jabs and on-course spectacle of the Lefty experience will be the limits of our expectations for Mickelson at U.S. Opens.
Here are a few other names to watch as potential first-time U.S. Open champions along with thoughts on their chances at winning:
Justin Thomas: It’s difficult to know what to expect from Thomas as he’s still working his way back from a wrist injury that kept him out of the PGA Championship and tournament golf for more than a month. In total, the former PGA Champion has four top-10 finishes in 11 starts in 2019, but all of those top-10 finishes were in the first two months of the year. It’s a crowded field at the top of the golf world right now and JT’s injury has him flying below the radar. A win at Pebble Beach would put him right back in the conversation as one of the best players in the world.
Rickie Fowler: While Mickelson has been chasing a U.S. Open title forever, Fowler remains one of the best golfers without a major championship win at all. His game appears suited for “the Opens” — U.S. Open and the British Open — but the results haven’t been there in recent years. If there’s a Pebble Beach-specific angle to like with Rickie this week it’s taking note of his performance at Pinehurst in 2014, where ball-striking and sharp play on and around the greens helped lift him to the top of a field that was chasing Martin Kaymer in his T2 finish.
Jason Day: The 2015 PGA Champion has been runner-up at the U.S. Open twice and finished in the top-10 five times between 2011-16, but Day enters this week at Pebble Beach after back-to-back missed cuts at this event. Day’s advantage is and will likely always be his putter, and he’s got some good momentum right now with a T4 finish at Pebble Beach in February and a T5 finish at the Masters in April.
Xander Schauffele: I’m already on record with Xander as my pick to win. He finished T5 at Erin Hills and T6 at Shinnecock and has four top-six finishes in his nine major starts. There’s going to be a lot of winning in Xander’s career, I’m just trying to get ahead of the curve and call it early.
Tommy Fleetwood: Last year’s final round 63 shook up the leaderboard and put some pressure on Koepka, so now we’re looking to Fleetwood as a potential contender to win it all at Pebble Beach. Consistency across 72 holes and avoiding bad rounds and ejection holes have been issues, but Fleetwood is one of the few golfers you can count on for a really low number. With scoring expected to remain at or just under par, Fleetwood has the potential to break away from the back with one really good round.