By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
Attention to detail makes Phil Mickelson tough to beat in majors.
MAMARONECK, N.Y. - Golf is supposed to be a game of leisure, a walk amid nature. It is to be enjoyed, not endured. The sport is a pursuit, a passion.
Even those who do it for a living give golf the appearance of fun, mostly. They travel the world, play the best courses, make it appear easy.
Then there is Phil Mickelson, who is making the pursuit of major championships look like, well, work.
Twelve-hour stints at the golf course, taking notes, spending up to 45 minutes per hole, learning every crevice, hitting shots from everywhere. And then doing it again.
Sounds like a day in the office might be less stressful.
"The hardest days for me are the preparation days," Mickelson said. "I'm worn out, it takes me days to recover. But I actually enjoy them."
Well, the result has been three major-championship victories, and all the work is obviously worth it.
Nobody is more prepared to play Winged Foot Golf Club today than Mickelson, who begins the 106th U.S. Open attempting to win his third straight major and fourth in the last 10.
"I've been here a decent amount," said Mickelson, almost sheepishly.
He then explained that he visited the storied New York club two weeks after the Masters. Then a month ago for five days. Last week, before playing at the Barclays Classic in Harrison, N.Y., he was here for another day. And he even visited over the weekend, after playing in the tournament.
In all, Mickelson figured he'd been to Winged Foot nine or 10 days - which is probably nine or 10 days more than just about anybody else in the 156-player field.
"I feel as though I know the golf course as well as I can," he said. "But I still have a great challenge, and the challenge is executing, hitting the shots. I may know where I want the ball to go, I know how the putts break, but I still have to hit them, and that's the toughest part."
Nobody has taken major-championship preparation to this level.
Players prepare in different ways, all based on their comfort level. Some like to play a tournament the week before a major to get into a competitive mode. Others prefer to take time off and practice at home.
Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record with 18 major titles, typically skipped the week before a major, and may or may not have visited the venue. Mostly, he worked on his game in private. It is the same for Tiger Woods, who rarely plays a tournament the week before a major, choosing to hone his game at home.
"Some guys like to play a lot prior to events and play their way into shape," said Woods, who has not competed since the Masters. "I've always practiced my way into shape. It all depends on the person, really."
Most players will not see the major-championship venue until the week of the tournament, or perhaps the weekend before. It simply does not make sense for them to make a special trip. They put their efforts into other events.
But Mickelson has found a plan that works for him, and it makes sense when you consider that outside of Augusta National, players know the major venues the least.
Many in the field were here nine years ago for the PGA Championship, but it is a different course that now measures 7,264 yards.
"This course has more subtleties than just about any course I've ever played," Mickelson said. "Little rolls in the greens, little rolls in the fairway, little falloffs on the edge of the greens ... learning those particular nuances on some of these greens requires a lot of time, and that's why I spent a lot of time here."
After a disappointing 2003 season, Mickelson came up with his strategy with the help of short-game guru Dave Pelz and swing coach Rick Smith. They believed it was important for him to map out a game plan going into each major. So Mickelson visited Augusta National early and often, and the result was a win at the 2004 Masters, his first major title after going 0-for-42 as a pro.
Mickelson did it for the rest of the majors that year, and finished second at the U.S. Open, third at the British Open (one shot out of a playoff) and missed a playoff by two shots at the PGA Championship.
Last year, the plan was not as effective, but Mickelson stuck to it and won the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.
"Having success at Baltusrol or in the '04 Masters or even this year's Masters, it makes it all worthwhile," Mickelson said. "I've come to the point where I enjoy the challenge of trying to be successful in these very difficult tests of golf."