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Roy Firestone: Athletes Are In It To...

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Phil Mickelson described his feelings toward links golf as a "hate-love" relationship, meaning he once dreaded coming over to the British Open for a brand of golf played only once a year. Now he loves it.

He felt that way even before his name was engraved on the silver claret jug.

Mickelson was in a great mood the first day he set foot on Muirfield last week. Fresh off a win at the Scottish Open, he played a practice round late Monday afternoon with Scott Piercy, a newcomer to links golf who received plenty of advice and a little needling from Mickelson.

When they reached the 18th hole, Piercy decided to hit driver with a slightly helping wind. He pulled it and watched it run into a bunker.

"This is what I love about Scott," Mickelson said, loud enough for Piercy to hear. "For more than a hundred years they've been playing here, everyone tries to keep it short of those bunkers. Scott gets here and says, `What do they know? I'm taking driver over those bunkers.'"

The entire group broke into laughter.

Mickelson is not sure when he figured out the secret to links golf.

Even though he won the British Open in his 20th try, he played good enough to win twice before. He finished one shot out of a playoff at Royal Troon in 2004, and a Sunday charge at Royal St. George's two years ago was derailed when he missed a short par putt on the back nine. But he was always capable. Anyone with more than 40 titles and multiple majors can win anywhere on any surface.

He still won't be looked upon as a links specialist, not like Tiger Woods or Ernie Els from his generation.

Even so, Mickelson's three-shot victory at Muirfield for his fifth career major was every bit as important as his first major in 2004 at the Masters. The greatest players don't just have multiple majors, their major trophies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, such as green jackets and silver jugs, along with more traditional cups.

Of the 26 players who have won at least four majors, only two never won a British Open - Byron Nelson and Raymond Floyd.

Nelson played in an era when Americans rarely played in golf's oldest championship because the prize money was so small they would lose money even if they won. Floyd skipped his share of Opens, too, for it really wasn't until the late 1980s when hardly anyone considered not playing.

The ultimate measure of greatness is the career Grand Slam.

Five players make up the most elite class in golf - Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.

Woods won his career Grand Slam when he was 24 and had played in only 15 majors. Nicklaus and Player had all four majors when they were in their 20s. Hogan and Sarazen got theirs before the modern version of the Grand Slam even came into existence.

In that context, the last player to pick up the third leg of the Grand Slam would have been Floyd when he won the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. By then, he was 43 and not considered a favorite to add a claret jug to his collection.

Mickelson also is 43, though the dynamics are entirely different.

For starters, he believes he is playing some of the best golf of his career, and it's hard to doubt him. Mickelson has won three times this year, including the Phoenix Open where he missed out on a 59 by the smallest or margins, and a win last week in the Scottish Open.

And the missing link is the U.S. Open, which Mickelson always thought would be the one major he could win. It hasn't been from a lack of effort. Mickelson holds the U.S. Open record with six silver medals, the latest heartbreak coming only a month ago at Merion. He was poised to win until twice making bogey with a wedge in his hand.

Mickelson's national championship has never meant more than it does now.

"I think that if I'm able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that's the sign of the complete, great player," he said. "And I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me."

He said that in such a way that the room erupted in laughter, with Mickelson leading the way. He is not afraid to make fun of his own shortcomings.

"I think there's five players that have done that. And those five players are the greats of the game," he said. "You look at them with a different light."

The U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2 next year, a slightly different course that now features expanses of sandy waste area. It's not quite the same as when Payne Stewart beat Mickelson by one shot with a par on the 18th hole. And don't forget, Mickelson finished 12 shots out of the lead at Pinehurst in 2005.

True, he needs the U.S. Open to be looked upon in a different light, to join the greats of the game.

But he does not need the U.S. Open to be looked upon as a complete player. The claret jug takes care of that.

Nick Faldo has one more major than Mickelson, winning the Masters and the British Open three times each. Faldo clearly was good enough to win the other two American majors - he lost in a playoff to Curtis Strange in the 1988 U.S. Open, and finished one shot out of a playoff in the 1993 PGA Championship - but he never did.

Seve Ballesteros won the Masters and British Open. Peter Thomson has five majors, all at the British Open.

Others with at least five majors never had the four modern majors at their full disposal - players like Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid. Bobby Jones created the Masters but, in effect, he was retired by then and golf's greatest amateur was never eligible for the PGA Championship.

There's something special about winning three majors, something grand about four.

Mickelson took care of the hard part with one of greatest closing rounds in a major at Muirfield. He is not done yet.

A flash flood watch has been issued for the San Gabriel Mountains and the Antelope Valley. Air quality will range from moderate to unhealthful for sensitive groups.

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