Phil Mickelson relishing total immersion at Pinehurst
Still chasing elusive US Open title, 43-year-old is confident of shutting out distractions to focus on one of game's most demanding courses
Associated Press in Pinehurst, North Carolina
Phil Mickelson spent five hours in the stifling heat at Pinehurst No 2 with a lot on his mind.
He was trying to sharpen his game, work out what it will take to finally win a US Open and make enough putts with his claw grip to avoid a seventh runner-up finish.
This major has a reputation as the toughest test in golf. It is certainly that for Mickelson.
"I really believe that this week is testing a player's entire game," Mickelson said.
"Because it forces you to make good decisions, to choose the right club off the tee, hit solid iron shots into the green and utilise your short game to save strokes. It's just a wonderful test ... the best test I've seen to identify the best player."
His definition of Pinehurst would seem to necessitate every ounce of concentration. And that could be his biggest challenge.
On the golf course, Mickelson is trying to ignore the enormous expectations on him this week. He holds the worst kind of US Open record, with six runner-up finishes. He needs this major to complete a career grand slam.
He is also a sentimental favourite at Pinehurst No 2, where in 1999 he played the week with his wife on the verge of delivering their first child.
Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to beat him by one shot. Amanda Mickelson was born the next day. Stewart died in a plane crash four months later.
"Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future US Opens," Mickelson said.
"Although I haven't won one yet, I'm still fighting hard, and this would be a great place to break through and do it. The flip side is that I tend to do well when it's least expected.
"I don't want to put the pressure on that this is the only week that I'll have a chance," he said. "I'll have a number of great opportunities in the future years. But this is certainly as good a chance as I'll have."
Off the course, Mickelson has made headlines that threaten his clean image. He was linked two weeks ago to an insider trading investigation involving activist investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters over some timely trades of Clorox stock three years ago.
FBI agents even came to the golf course to try to interview Mickelson. He referred them to his lawyer, said he had done "absolutely nothing wrong", and that "I'm not going to walk around any other way".
It would seem to be a major distraction for Mickelson.
Even though he hasn't won in nearly a year, and has dropped to No 11 in the world rankings, he is the centre of attention in the sand hills of North Carolina - especially with Tiger Woods still out of the game while recovering from back surgery.
Then again, it could be to Mickelson's advantage to be at a place such as Pinehurst. The course does not allow anyone to think about anything but the next shot.
"We have so many players when they have a lot of stuff swirling around them that use that four or five hours on the course as a sanctuary," two-time US Open champion Andy North said.
"You can focus sometimes even better, which sounds crazy, but it's your place where no one can get to you.
"The phone can't ring. No one can ask you questions about whatever it is. And you get out there and find your little space. And sometimes that creates a situation where a guy can play exceptionally well."
The investigation has not been a big topic since Mickelson said repeatedly at the Memorial that he had done nothing wrong, was cooperating, and would not talk about it until it was resolved.