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Phil Mickelson's chance to seize the crown is now

The world's best golfers vie for the chance to win the 110th rendition of the tournament.

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, June 19, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF.

The ruffling and shuffling you hear in the background of this U.S. Open isn't a flock of seagulls arriving off the Pacific. Instead, it is a changing of the animal pecking order in the world of golf as Tiger Woods, after another over-par round here on Friday, moves back to mortal status in his game, at least for the moment.

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So far, the critter that's made the biggest noise here, acted most territorial by far, has been Phil Mickelson, with a second-round 66 that started with five birdies on his first eight holes. Because of an opening-round 75, that hot-putting score only put the reigning Masters champ in a four-way tie for second place. But it served notice as loudly as a predator's roar. The days of meek Mickelson may be ending.

As rattled or insecure as Mickelson has looked at times in his career, that's how composed he seems now, basking in a Pebble Beach oceanside atmosphere he adores. "I don't want the tournament to end," he said. "I just want to keep playing." At the U.S. Open, the golf equivalent of medieval torture, that sounds like bad news for foes.

Nonetheless, just one day ago, Mickelson hit balls into the Pacific at both the 17th and 18th holes. So, lets not get ahead of ourselves. What seems most certain is that this weekend will go far toward establishing which man, or rising group of players, will share top billing with Woods, or even supplant him. Or, if golf is unlucky, if Phil pholds, it could also reveal that, for now, the game is in one of its periodic charisma funks.

At the pinnacle of a sport in which huge personalities and great deeds have been perilously sparse for a dozen seasons as Woods squelched careers and egos, Mickelson, who turned 40 Wednesday, is the only player with a chance to establish an era of his own as the world's No. 1 player before his prime years start to run out.

With golf still doubled over from the body blow dealt by the Woods sex scandal, this is Mickelson's hour to fill the void as a hugely popular champion. Some pros here, like 60-year-old Tom Watson, who made the cut, don't even hide their frigid feelings toward Woods. Early this week, in a slow-play backup during practice, Woods and Watson, both Stanford men, stood on the same tee for 10 minutes and never made eye contact.

Will Mickelson, fresh from a Masters victory, redirect the world's attention to him by winning this Open to reach the midpoint of a traditional one-season Grand Slam? Could a sport known for its cruelty possibly be so kind?

Surrounding Mickelson are a squadron of established International players, like England's Paul Casey, two-time Open winner Ernie Els and the current Open leader Graeme McDowell (71-68 -- 3-under-par 139) of Northern Ireland.

"Look at the world rankings. There's an international flavor. Especially in Europe, we have a real strength of talent coming through," said McDowell, aware no European has won this Open in 40 years. "It's only a matter of time. . . . Things are changing. This golf course really has a links-type feel to it. It's a British Open-type golf course."

Finally, rapidly approaching contention, is some of the finest young talent in ages, especially Ryo Ishikawa, 18, who shot a 58 on the Japanese tour and stands, stunningly, in a tie for second place with Mickelson at 70-71 -- 141.

"Ryo's extraordinary," Els said. "He played in the Presidents Cup last year, and I really got to know him well. A great kid. . . . There are a lot of youngsters coming through. I think what Tiger has done, a lot of these kids want to do what he's done. So they come out early. And they're aggressive and they're confident."


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