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Phil Mickelson's chance to seize the crown is now

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, June 19, 2010; D06

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.

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."

Watson, who has been paired with the red-shirted Ishikawa for two days, couldn't keep from gushing about his putting: "He reminded me of me when I was 18. Made everything. Drove it in the back of the hole and rattled it in. I love to watch him putt."

The name most frequently paired with Ishikawa as the next big thing is 21-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. But struggles here his (75-77, missed cut) may have revealed that the long bomber is not ready yet for major championship challenges.

"Rory plays gung-ho golf," said McDowell, his friend and frequent practice partner. He doesn't put a lot of thought in what he does. He relies on sheer talent and sheer belief. He's awesome, no doubt about it. . . . He's a young kid; he grips and rips it. [But] it's not U.S. Open golf, [where] you've got to plot your way around and play smart. That will come with experience."

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the void at the top of golf more poignantly than the adoration here for Watson. Golf fans are born acolytes, almost worshippers before the sport's reigning deity of any era. Woods has, in a blink, forfeited that role. So, Watson temporarily suffices as exemplar, hardly a healthy state for a sport. Asked about Woods's game, he replied pointedly, "He talks about (the need for) complete silence. It's hard to have complete silence when things are going on in your mind."

As gifted as Ishikawa and other young players like McIlroy, Anthony Kim and Dustin Johnson, the prodigiously long 25-year-old who is also tied for second place, may become in time, it is hard to see them marching the steps to an Open throne this weekend.

"My feeling is 'go for it,'" said Ishikawa, describing his entire approach. "This course makes me try a lot of different shots that I'm not used to on the Japanese Tour. . . . It's very different. So I'm learning."

If the kids who grew up emulating Woods aren't ready yet, and the Europeans have a 40-year U.S. Open jinx, back to Tony Jacklin on their necks, then who will step forward this weekend? Woods has always abhorred a vacuum. But on Friday it still looked like his game and peace of mind weren't quite where he wants them.

Will Mickelson, who has so often come up short when he wanted something most passionately, take the final step to the very top of his sport? That's what the game itself seems to crave. But they don't issue scripts along with the pairings sheets.

Don't dismiss the youngsters like Ishikawa and Johnson. It's happened. "When I look back now, it's amazing when I think I was 24 when I won this event at Oakmont," said Els. "I must have been out of my head to think I could have won at 24."

Then there are those internationals, from McDowell to Els to classy Paul Casey, all in their best form. Tiger's seven shots back, but still upright. And then there's Phil, the player that golf has held its breath for almost 20 years.

Mickelson's wife Amy, recovering from breast cancer, and their three children, plan to fly here to join him for the Open weekend. The 66 probably did it. Only once since her cancer diagnosis has Amy joined Phil at an event. That was the Masters.

"We'll have breakfast together. I'll play some chess with the kids," said Mickelson, beaming. Make of it what you will. Probably a lot.

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