BETHESDA, June 16, 2011 (AFP) - Rory McIlroy put his Masters misery firmly behind him Thursday, firing a superb six-under 65 for a three-stroke lead in the first round of the 111st US Open at Congressional Country Club.
The previous round of major golf for the then 21-year-old Ulsterman had been a nightmare 80 after taking a four-stroke lead into the final round of the Masters in April.
McIlroy, now 22, took command of the leaderboard late in a day that saw South Korea's Yang Yong-Eun in front for much of the way with a 68, while some of golf's big guns misfired badly.
Level with Yang on three under was Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa who came in with a late charge.
Schwartzel's compatriot and British Open championn Louis Oosthuizen was a further stroke back alongside top American Ryan Palmer, back-to-form Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Alexander Rocha of Brazil, Scott Hend of Australia and Kim Kyung-Tae of South Korea.
It was a disappointing day, though, for the world top-three glamour grouping with Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer struggling to a 74 and Lee Westwood ending the day a stroke further back.
US fan favorite Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, once again was wayward off the tee, but battled back as best he could to stay in touch with a three-over 73.
McIlroy sunk six birdies for no bogeys and he transmitted a picture of youthful confidence in stark contrast to the "little boy lost" look he displayed down the back nine at Augusta.
By the end of a riveting opening day, the Boy Wonder from Belfast found himself in a similar position to the one he was in at the year's first major, when he was joint first round leader, two strokes clear of Korea's Yang.
"It was a good round of golf. I didn't really put a foot wrong," he said.
"It doesn't feel like a typical US Open, for some reason. The golf course is going to get harder and it's going to get firmer and it's going to get trickier, but I still feel that it's very playable and fair."
The sturdy Korean Yang stunned the golf world when he won the 2009 US PGA Championship title, becoming the first Asian man to win a major and edging Tiger Woods in the process.
On Thursday, he once more proved his major mettle by firing a round of five birdies and two bogeys.
"I think the course setup is a bit more to my advantage than the other previous US Opens," Yang said.
"And also I've been playing a lot more conservatively this week and practiced a lot, played less bonehead plays."
Oosthuizen, who won his first major by an amazing seven strokes last July at St Andrews, bogeyed the first two holes before finding his form with six birdies.
"I'm happy with my score," Oosthuizen said. "I made four bogeys, but on this golf course it's got a lot of bogeys out there.
Among a large group that finished the day on one-under 70 was defending champion Graeme McDowell.
The Ulsterman, whose win at Pebble Beach last year catapulted him into prominence in world golf, opened with a bogey, but he was at one under by the turn and parred his way down the back nine.
"I felt really, really good this morning. I felt normal," said McDowell, who has said the weight of being the US Open champion had been draining him over the last few months.
"It felt like a regular major championship. It didn't feel like I was defending anything."
Also on one under were Americans Stewart Cink, Chez Revie, Davis Love, Bubba Dickerson and Robert Garrigus alongside Swedes Henrik Stenson and Johan Edfors, John Senden of Australia and Spain's Alvaro Quiros.
The world's top three players, meanwhile, struggled to get to grips with the testing par-71 layout west of Washington, favoured by US presidents and lawmakers and hosting the US Open for the first time since 1997 when Ernie Els won.
World No.1 Donald, No.2 Westwood and No.3 Kaymer all opened solidly enough over the water at the devlish par-three 10th.
But, playing in the same grouping, they were all soon in trouble over the more difficult back nine, especially Englishman Donald, who dropped six strokes in six holes from the 13th.
Donald was down but not out.
"You go back to the positives I've had over the last four months," he said.
"I've played in enough US Opens and majors to know that if I shoot something in the red (under par) I'm putting myself back in position."
For the first time since he made his debut as an amateur in 1995, there was no Woods at a US Open, serious knee and tendon injuries sustained at the Masters having ruled him out.
BETHESDA, June 16, 2011 (AFP) - Early starters at the 111th US Open on Thursday were greeted with steady rain and the forecast of heavier showers for later in the day.
Three recent world number ones from Europe playing together, Phil Mickelson out to shatter a 20-year-old jinx and no Tiger Woods were the talking points as the action got underway at Congressional Country Club.
The fallen US and world superstar Woods had played in 16 straight US Opens since making his debut as an amateur in 1995, but serious knee and ankle injuries sustained at the Masters in April ruled him out this time around.
His tumble down the world rankings ushered in a period of uncertainty at the top, with three players - Lee Westwood of England, Martin Kaymer of Germany and Luke Donald of England - all taking turns to rule the roost in the last seven months.
That threesome will play together early on Thursday, where they will start at the devlish par-three 10th, and Friday.
Current number one Donald expresses pride in having reached the top, but is in no doubt that it is winning majors that counts most in a career. At 33 he has yet to achieve that feat.
"Certainly being number one is a great achievement, but if you ask me if I would swap that for Phil (Mickelson's) record, sure, I would love to take his majors and the number of victories he has had," he said.
"But I'll continue to feed off all the good things that have got me to number one and hopefully I can add to my victories."
The 41-year-old Mickelson knows only too well the task facing Donald, having failed 46 times to win a major before finally coming good at the 2004 Masters.
He has also won the USPGA, but it is the US Open that he wants most, having finished runner-up a record five times, most recently at Bethpage on Long Island two years ago.
The left-hander from California insists he is not obsessed by finally winning the tournament that matters most to him.
"Just as when I was trying to win my first major championship, if you focus so much on the result, if you focus so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way," he said.
"I'm trying to think about the process of playing the type of golf I want to play around this course."
Mickelson will head out in the company of emerging American talent Dustin Johnson and 22-year-old Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, who will be out to banish memories of his closing 80 at the Masters in April after leading by four going into the final round.
In a packed international field of 156 golfers, US Golf Association officials have strung together some eye-catching groupings such as the all-Italian line-up of the Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo, along with 18-year-old prodigy Matteo Manassero and Spaniards Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Alvaro Quiros.
Then there are recent Masters winners Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman of South Africa and Zach Johnson of the United States as well as defending champion Graeme McDowell with British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and US amateur champion Peter Uihlein.
The par-71 Blue course at Congressional, west of Washington, has been extensively remodeled since Ernie Els won the last time it was played here in 1997 and the consensus verdict is "tough but fair."
Thursday, June 16
7am (1100 GMT): Kim Dae-hyun (KOR), Chez Reavie, Shane Lowry (IRL)
7:11: Greg Chalmers (AUS), Kirk Triplett, Brad Adamonis
7:22: Marc Leishman (AUS), Alex Cejka (GER), Kevin Streelman
7:33: Fred Funk, a-David Chung, Michael Campbell (NZL)
7:44: Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey (ENG), K.J. Choi (KOR)
7:55: Graeme McDowell (NIR), a-Peter Uihlein, Louis Oosthuizen (RSA)
8:06: Henrik Stenson (SWE), Johan Edfors (SWE), Fredrik Jacobson (SWE)
8:17: Ernie Els (RSA), Davis Love, Jim Furyk
8:28: Justin Rose (ENG), J.J. Henry, Jason Day (AUS)
8:39: Jeff Overton, Ryan Palmer, Gary Woodland
8:50: Brandt Jobe, Nick O'Hern (AUS), D.A. Points
9:01: Christo Greyling (RSA), Adam Hadwin (CAN), Joey Lamielle
9:12: Michael Tobiason, Jesse Hutchins, Michael Smith
12:40pm (1640 GMT): Ty Tryon, Maarten Lafeber (NED), Scott Barr (AUS)
12:51: Geoffrey Sisk, a-Pan Cheng-tsung (TPE), Matt Richardson (ENG)
1:02: Bo Van Pelt, Kim Kyung-tae (KOR), Ben Crane
1:13: Mark Wilson, Martin Laird (SCO), Peter Hanson (SWE)
1:24: Miguel Angel Jimenez (ESP), Sergio Garcia (ESP), Alvaro Quiros (ESP)
1:35: Francesco Molinari (ITA), Matteo Manassero (ITA), Edoardo Molinari (ITA)
1:46: Hiroyuki Fujita (JPN), Todd Hamilton, Kevin Na
1:57: Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter (ENG), Hunter Mahan
2:08: Camilo Villegas (COL), Aaron Baddeley (AUS), Brandt Snedeker
2:19: Kevin Chappell, Kim Do-hoon (KOR), Robert Rock (ENG)
2:30: Jon Mills (CAN), Andreas Harto (DEN), a-Scott Pinckney
2:41: a-Steven Irwin, Ryan Nelson, Elliot Gealy
2:52: Christopher Deforest, a-Chris Williams, Wes Heffernan (CAN)
7am (1100 GMT): Chad Campbell, Harrison Frazar, Marc Turnesa
7:11: Justin Hicks, Marcel Siem (GER), Kang Sung-hoon (KOR)
7:22: Thomas Levet (FRA) Brian Gay, Gregory Havret (FRA)
7:33: Heath Slocum, a-Russell Henley, Nicolas Colsaerts (BEL)
7:44: Padraig Harrington (IRL), Angel Cabrera (ARG), Stewart Cink
7:55: Ryo Ishikawa (JPN), Anthony Kim, Yang Yong-eun (KOR)
8:06: Luke Donald (ENG), Lee Westwood (ENG), Martin Kaymer (GER)
8:17: Jonathan Byrd, Bill Haas, Webb Simpson
8:28: Bubba Watson, Adam Scott (AUS), Robert Karlsson (SWE)
8:39: Sam Saunders, Tim Petrovic, Scott Piercy
8:50: Matthew Edwards, a-Brad Benjamin, Zack Byrd
9:01: Bud Cauley, Adam Long, a-Michael Barbosa
9:12: Michael Whitehead, Will Wilcox, John Ellis
12:40pm (1640 GMT): Alexandre Rocha (BRA), Andres Gonzales, Bubba Dickerson
12:51: Michael Putnam, a-Patrick Cantlay, Robert Dinwiddie (ENG)
1:02: John Senden (AUS), Robert Garrigus, Scott Hend (AUS)
1:13: Jason Dufner, Stephen Gallacher (SCO), Noh Seung-yul (KOR)
1:24: Steve Stricker, Retief Goosen (RSA), David Toms
1:35: Rory McIlroy (NIR), Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson
1:46: Charl Schwartzel (RSA), Trevor Immelman (RSA), Zach Johnson
1:57: Nick Watney, Lucas Glover, Geoff Ogilvy (AUS)
2:08: Ryan Moore, Robert Allenby (AUS), Rory Sabbatini (RSA)
2:19: David Howell (ENG), Kenichi Kuboya (JPN), Briny Baird
2:30: Charley Hoffman, Alexander Noren (SWE), Bae Sang-moon (KOR)
2:41: a-Brett Patterson, Bennett Blakeman, Brian Locke
2:52: Chris Wilson, David May, a-Beau Hossler
BETHESDA, June 13, 2011 (AFP) - Players began the first official practice rounds on Monday for this week's 111th US Open, some of them getting their first look at the event's trademark dense rough and lightning-fast greens.
New Zealand's Michael Campbell, the 2005 US Open champion, was the first man out on the par-71, 7,574-yard Congressional Country Club layout, testing the front nine 11 minutes before 7 in the morning in mild and sunny conditions.
Each player mixes practice needs with energy conservation in what figures to be a grueling week and a test of nerve and patience as well as skills.
"By Thursday I don't want to be overworked," American Hunter Mahan said. "I want to be very fresh mentally, physically and ready to go to battle, because the US Open is a battle and it is probably the longest four days of the year."
Much of the focus in Thursday's opening round at Congressional Country Club will be upon the trio of World No. 1 Luke Donald of England and the prior two No. 1s, England's Lee Westwood and Germany's Martin Kaymer. The European stars tee off at 8:06 in the morning.
Donald sounded relaxed, joking late Sunday on his Twitter microblogging site that he was "Thinking of rocking up to the 1st tee on Thursday wearing a big ass pair of headphones, NBA style. What u think? Ha."
It probably would not help his chances of following England's Tony Jacklin in 1970 and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell last year as the only Europeans to win the US Open since 1925.
Donald and Westwood seek their first major titles while Kaymer made his major breakthrough by taking last year's PGA Championship.
Another first-time major winner could be in the cards at Congressional as well. Seven of the past eight majors have been won by players who had not previously captured a major crown, the most recent being South African Charl Schwartzel at the Masters last April.
"At all tournaments, but more so the US Open, you can't jump out of the blocks quickly," Schwartzel said. "You need to take it as it comes, be patient. I like when it plays tough."
Mahan, 20th in the rankings, likes his chance for a first major title entering the US Open fight.
"I'm right on track for the US Open," he said. "I've been pretty consistent this year, which is nice. The game's not far away from just bursting and just making a ton of birdies and getting some momentum of shooting low scores."
England's Justin Rose recalls how deftly South Africa's Ernie Els handled the 17th hole to edge Colin Montgomerie and win the 1997 US Open.
Rose, also seeking his first major crown, still sees that hole, now the 18th in a revamped layout, as a likely title decider.
"The 18th hole is going to be obviously a huge test," Rose said. "They have tried to get some teeth into that hole and create a dramatic finish.
"You're definitely going to get that opportunity to hit that Ernie Els draw 5-iron into that back left-hand pin placement."
With World No. 15 Tiger Woods missing the US Open for the first time since 1994 because of left knee and Achilles tendon injuries, the 14-time major winner's chase of the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus is idled until at least next month's British Open.
BETHESDA, June 13, 2011 (AFP) - Martin Kaymer hopes to duplicate the championship magic of German compatriot Dirk Nowitzki this week and win the US Open just as Nowitzki captured an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks.
Nowitzki powered the Dallas Mavericks to victory at Miami on Sunday to claim his first NBA crown, earning NBA Finals Most Valuable Player honors in the process as the Mavericks beat the Heat 4-2 in the best-of-seven title series.
Kaymer, who captured his breakthrough first major title at last year's PGA Championship, is a big fan of Nowitzki who hopes to lift his own champion's trophy next Sunday after the final round at Congressional Country Club.
"What Dirk has done since he has been in America, it's amazing. He came here with nothing and became one of the greatest players in the NBA," Kaymer said Monday before a practice round for the tournament that begins on Thursday.
"For me he has always been a role model. He's kind of a quiet guy. That's how I am. I'm not outgoing."
Kaymer, who played basketball as a youngster at a sports school in Dusseldorf, knows he has some work to do to overtake Nowitzki in a popularity contest among Germans.
"I'm trying to make golf bigger in Germany, to make it closer to the people," Kaymer said. "In the last few weeks in the German media it was all about Dirk.
"He's more popular than me for sure. But I'm working on it."
World No. 3 Kaymer estimates that as many as 40 players have a chance to win the US Open crown, so just as with overtaking Nowitzki in the hearts and minds of German sports fans, Kaymer must be patient.
"A few years ago maybe it was 10 or 12 players but now it's so spread out. I think it could be anybody -- 30 to 40 is my guess," Kaymer said.
"It can be a young guy, a Ryo Ishikawa or Rory (McIlroy). Or it can be a David Toms. It's wide open.
"It's nothing you can push or try to force. It's a waiting thing. You need to be patient. Patience is the big part and the most important thing."
Proving Kaymer's point on how up for grabs this week's title is, each of the past 10 majors has been won by a different player. The rise of new stars and a 20-month win drought for 14-time major winner Tiger Woods have played a role.
"It's exciting to have different champions. It's great for golf in the world," Kaymer said. "Why it's like this I have no idea. Tiger, he hasn't been up to his best form recently. That's why he didn't win.
"For us Europeans it's fantastic to see so many of us up there."
Kaymer will see Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood up close. World No. 1 Donald and No. 2 Westwood will be his playing partners for the first two rounds in a star-power pairing that will not disrupt Kaymer's game.
"I've had it happen before," he said. "At the end of the day, you're still focused on the tournament, not on the world rankings."
Patience is the key for Kaymer, who is not so much looking for a sizzling start on Thursday as he is simply trying to make certain he does not play his way out of contention before Sunday's back-nine title hunt.
"If I have an OK start, put myself in an OK position for the weekend, then I'm looking for that great round over the weekend," Kaymer said. "Sometimes that great round isn't even necessary, just don't make any stupid mistakes."
That means dealing with bogeys or missed birdie opportunities.
"Mentally it's very tough -- 30 to 40 percent of the field they will get frustrated," he said. "It's tough to score well. It's about waiting for your chances on Sunday."
BETHESDA, June 13, 2011 (AFP) - On the eve of his 55th birthday, Fred Funk warned that despite an artificial knee and 15-year-old son Taylor as his caddie, this oldie might still be good enough to be a US Open threat.
Funk will be the oldest player in the field of 156 when the US Open begins Thursday at Congressional Country club, and seven years older than Julius Boros when he became the oldest major winner at the 1968 PGA Championship.
"I expect to do OK," Funk said Monday. "I still have high expectations. I'm not here just to walk two rounds or four rounds and just show up. I truly believe I can still be competitive when I'm playing well and feeling good."
Funk, who had his right knee replaced in 2009, had been struggling but has rounded his game into shape, firing a 62 last week in his final round in an event on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, where he is a six-time winner.
"If I can drive the ball the way I've been driving it, which has just been really straight, and keep it out of the rough, then I can set up holes even though I'll be hitting a lot of ammo into the greens," Funk said.
"I've played really well on a lot of long golf courses because I'm used to hitting long clubs into holes anyway."
Hometown hero Funk, who qualified last week with rounds of 67 and 68 at nearby Rockville, took advice from his son, set to play for his high school team in two months, and battled his way through qualifying.
As a result, he will play in his home area on the same course where he made his PGA debut at the 1982 Kemper Open.
"I didn't realize how much it meant to me until I walked off the course," Funk said. "It meant a lot to me because it is my hometown and Congressional is a special place."
At 7,574 yards, the par-71 layout is the second-longest in US Open history. Some rivals even warned him Congressional is no country club for old men.
"Some of the guys said, 'Be careful what you wish for,'" Funk said. "If they play it from all the way back, that's fine. I'll get home eventually. There are some holes I just can't reach.
"But I'm going to go out there and really just be intent on having a good time and enjoying the atmosphere if I shoot 85 or if I shoot 65."
If Funk did fight his way into contention on Sunday, he would be playing with his son on his bag on Father's Day.
"I would love to be with Taylor on the bag on Sunday walking on Father's Day. That would be really cool," Funk said. "That would be the whipped cream on the whole week. Anything else above that happens, then we'll go from there."
BETHESDA, June 13, 2011 (AFP) - Britain's Lee Westwood enters the US Open optimistic he has what it takes to finally snag an elusive first major golf crown.
"My confidence is pretty high. I'm looking forward to this week," Westwood said Monday. "I'm driving it pretty long and straight. My iron shots are fairly crisp, which is good coming into a US Open. My preparation has gone well."
The World No. 2 starts Thursday morning off the 10th tee alongside fellow Englishman Luke Donald, the reigning World No. 1, and Germany's third-ranked Martin Kaymer in the feature group at Congressional Country Club.
"Amazing freak of nature how that came out in the draw, wasn't it?" Westwood joked. "I like it. I think it's a good idea. I get on well with Luke and Martin as well, so it will be a nice way to start off the tournament."
Westwood was last year's Masters and British Open runner-up, shared third in the 2009 PGA Championship and British Open and was third in the 2008 US Open, one stroke out of an 18-hole playoff at Torrey Pines.
"It's a challenge that I've got to try and overcome and just do a little bit better at the right times," Westwood said. "There's no secret ingredient or recipe to it. I keep getting myself in position and it's just a case of finishing it off."
After so many near misses in quest of his first major, Westwood could be forgiven for some gloom over missed opportunities. But the 38-year-old from Worksop has proven resilient.
"If you're a good player, you're going to have disappointments because you're going to be in contention a lot," he said. "You're going to have lots of chances to win major championships, so that's all part and parcel of it.
"If you have a successful year, we maybe win three times a year. So you get used to not winning and being disappointed. You learn to try and take positives out of anything, even when you maybe finish second and you thought you should have won one of these.
"You try and look at it on the bright side and I think I've probably managed to do that over the last few years. I seem to be responding well and coming out of it positively, even though obviously I would love to win one."
Westwood has faith that if he puts himself in the hunt on Sunday often enough, the breaks will one day come his way.
"It's a fine balancing act and a fine line between when you do get really close to becoming frustrated but still seeing the positives in the fact that you are getting close," Westwood said.
"I feel like my game is good enough and if I just do a few things differently at the right times, then it'll be the difference between a second and a win. It's a tricky balancing act, going in with expectations but playing with a freedom as well."
Westwood played his first US Open at Congressional in 1997, when he shared 19th.
"Really doesn't seem like five minutes, those 14 years," Westwood said. "It's a pretty similar course. They have done a good job of modifying it and lengthening it and changing the greens in certain areas.
"It's very fair. There's no tricks to this golf course. You could almost turn up Thursday and just play it because it's such a good, honest test."
However, Westwood calls the US Open the toughest test of the majors because of the lightning-fast greens and dense rough.
"You have to be very patient and not give any shots away unnecessarily," he said. "If you can make double (bogey) instead of making triple, that's great.
"It's almost like one less birdie you need if you can make that three or four-footer when you need it."
BETHESDA, June 14, 2011 (AFP) - A look inside the US Open record books ahead of the 111st edition which starts on Thursday at Congressional Golf Club:
45 years and 15 days - Hale Irwin 1990
19 years and 10 months - John McDermott 1911
4 - Willie Anderson (1901, 1903, 1904, 1905), Bobby Jones (1923, 1926, 1927, 1930), Ben Hogan (1948, 1950, 1951, 1953), Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, 1980)
Most consecutive wins
3 - Willie Anderson (1903-05)
Largest winning margin
15 - Tiger Woods 2000
272 - Jack Nicklaus 1980, Lee Janzen 1993, Tiger Woods 2000, Jim Furyk 2003
Most under par
12 under - Tiger Woods 2000
63 - Johnny Miller 1973, Jack Nicklaus 1980, Tom Weiskopf 1980, Vijay Singh 2003
Lowest 9 holes
29 - Neal Lancaster 1995-96, Vijay Singh 2003
Oldest to make cut
61 - Sam Snead 1973
15 years 5 months - Tadd Fujikawa 2006
Francis Ouimet 1913, Jerome Travers 1915, Charles Evans 1916, Bobby Jones 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, John Goodman 1933
Most times runner-up
5 - Phil Mickelson (1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009)
Most top 10s
18 - Jack Nicklaus
Winners of Masters and US Open in same year
Craig Wood 1941, Ben Hogan 1951 & 1953, Arnold Palmer 1960, Jack Nicklaus 1972, Tiger Woods 2002
Lowest 36-hole cut
143 (+3) - Olympia Fields 2003
Start-to-finish winners (no ties)
Walter Hagen 1914, James Barnes 1921, Ben Hogan 1953, Tony Jacklin 1970, Tiger Woods 2000 and 2002
Last successful defence
Curtis Strange 1988-89
Last debutant winner
Francis Ouimet 1913
Last qualifier to win
Michael Campbell 2005
BETHESDA, June 14, 2011 (AFP) - Five-time runner-up Phil Mickelson likes his chances to win the US Open but says his quest might actually be tougher with rival Tiger Woods off his game and sidelined by injury.
Mickelson, a four-time major champion, makes his 21st attempt to win the US Open starting on Thursday at Congressional Country Club while Woods is absent, withdrawing last week due to left knee and Achilles tendon injuries.
"I've always felt Tiger helped bring out some of my best golf over the years," Mickelson said Tuesday. "Even though my record against him may not be the best, it has helped me achieve a higher level that I may not have ever achieved had he not been pushing me.
"So the challenge now is, without him playing his best or even competing, is pushing myself to achieve a level of play that's in there without him forcing me to do so. In that sense it might be a little bit more difficult."
This week, the challenge is to win the most elusive title he has sought.
"Deep down I have the belief that I can come out on top, but I'm trying not to worry about the result," Mickelson said.
"I'm playing some good golf. Ball-striking-wise, I think it's the best it has ever been in the last three, four, five months and I feel I'm right on the cusp of getting my confidence back with the putter."
Mickelson, whose 39th career title came in April at Houston, will turn 41 on Thursday, the same day he starts off the 10th tee alongside fellow American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy.
"If I play well, I know what it takes to be in contention," Mickelson said.
But Mickelson's near-misses at the US Open have become the stuff of legend.
The record runner-up run began with a one-stroke loss in 1999 at Pinehurst to the late Payne Stewart a day before his wife Amy gave birth to their first child. Mickelson next finished second to Woods at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage.
After taking his first major win in 47 tries at the 2004 Masters, Mickelson squandered a golden US Open chance at Shinnecock, leading by a stroke with two holes to go before a bogey at the par-3 17th led to a loss to Retief Goosen.
In 2006, Mickelson was coming off victories at the 2005 PGA Championship and 2006 Masters and could have matched Woods and Ben Hogan with three major wins in a row.
Mickelson even shared the 54-hole lead at Winged Foot and led by two shots with three holes to play before a bogey at 16 and double bogey at 18 helped hand Australian Geoff Ogilvy the victory with the southpaw sharing second.
In 2009 at Bethpage, Mickelson played with a heavy heart a month after learning Amy had breast cancer. He shared the lead after an eagle at the 13th but fell back with bogeys on 15 and 17 and watched Lucas Glover win the title.
Last year, Mickelson won the Masters again and contended at the US Open before settling for a share of fourth.
This week, Mickelson sees the journey as the destination.
"I really believe that I can win this tournament," Mickelson said. "But just as when I was trying to win my first major championship, if you focus so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way.
"So I'm trying not to think about winning as much as trying to enjoy the challenge that lies ahead. Rather than worrying about the result after 72 holes, I'm trying to think about the process of playing the type of golf I want to play."
Experience has been a hard teacher, but Mickelson has learned some lessons about patience and how to approach the mental and physical grind of the deep rough and lightning-fast greens of a US Open.
"I've kind of figured out how to manage myself around, control my misses and salvage pars the hard way," Mickelson said. "I'm not going to play perfect golf. I'm not going to hit every fairway. But there are times I can salvage pars and that's allowed me to be in contention a number of times."
Hale Irwin was 45 when he became the oldest US Open champion by winning at Medinah in 1990, the same year Mickelson made his US Open debut. Mickelson does not see Father Time taking his chance to win a US Open just yet.
"I turn 41 here in two days and I feel terrific," Mickelson said. "I'm more flexible and stronger than I have been in a long time.
BETHESDA, June 14, 2011 (AFP) - The US Open will be held over the Blue Course at Congressional Golf Club starting Thursday:
The following is a hole-by-hole guide to the layout:
1- 402 yards, par four
Slight dogleg left on which many will choose to keep their driver in the bag. Bunkers guard the right side of the landing area and more sand lies in wait short and back right of the green.
2- 233 yards, par three
Longest of the par threes has a relatively small green protected by six bunkers. A ridge runs through the centre of the putting surface, which slopes from back left to front right.
3- 466 yards, par four
A new tee creates another slight dogleg left and adds 10 yards. The fairway has been shifted to the right to bring the bunkers in the drive zone more into play and two pot bunkers are right of the green.
4- 470 yards, par four
Forty yards longer than it was for the 1997 US Open. The fairway has been moved to the left to create a sharper dogleg, while the green slopes severely from back to front.
5- 413 yards, par four
A dogleg left with bunkers on the inside of the angle and more around the green. Players must decide whether to try for some extra distance off the tee in the hope of setting up an easier approach.
6- 555 yards, par five
Was a long par four in the 1964 and 1997 US Opens, but converted into a risk-reward par five. A water hazard has to be negotiated with the second shot and the green is bisected by a swale.
7- 173 yards, par three
Uphill to a two-tiered green with deep bunkers guarding the front. Staying below the hole will be very important on a green that has a pronounced pitch from back to front.
8- 354 yards, par four
Shortest par four on the course. Most players will opt for something less than driver to a fairway that slopes from left to right. The green has a severe slope from back left to front right.
9- 636 yards, par five
A new back left tee has added 30 yards, although the markers will likely be moved up for one round to tempt players to try to reach the green. Short of it is a deep ravine that has the most penal rough on the course.
Out - 3702 yards, Par 36
10- 218 yards, par three
This new hole replaces the par-three finishing hole from 1997 and plays in the opposite direction. There is water to be carried and going long leaves a difficult recovery.
11- 494 yards, par four
One of the toughest holes on the course. The fairway has been shifted to the right up against the stream and the narrow green has a pond lurking on the right.
12- 471 yards, par four
New tee adds 55 yards, but expect the 401-yard tee for one round to give players the opportunity to sling their shots around the relatively sharp corner of this dogleg left.
13- 193 yards, par three
Plays slightly uphill to a heart-shaped green with three distinct sections and a steep back-to-front pitch, but it provides a slight breather before the tough closing stretch.
14- 467 yards, par four
Fairway gradually narrows in the drive zone, then comes an approach to an elevated green that is one of the toughest on the course - undulating with a sharp slope from back to front.
15- 490 yards, par four
New tee adds 50 yards. Very demanding slight dogleg left. Four bunkers on the right side of the drive and a dramatically elevated green which slopes back left to front right.
16- 579 yards, par five
Same yardage as in 1997, but the fairway bunkers have been moved farther down. Green is reachable in two, but is elevated and if you miss it the ball can roll down the hill.
17- 437 yards, par four
There is a steep hillside at the end of the fairway, but this time the rough at the bottom has been lowered to give players an option. The undulating green is divided by pronounced ridges.
18- 523 yards, par four
Driving down the right of the fairway allows drives to run down the right-to-left slope. The peninsula green is angled from right to left and, having previously been the 17th, could now prove a dramatic finish.
In - 3872 yards, Par 35
Total - 7574 yards, Par 71
BETHESDA, June 14, 2011 (AFP) - Two months on from one of the most spectacular meltdowns in major golf history, Rory McIlroy says that he has put that shattering experience firmly behind him and moved on.
Leading by four going into the final day of the Masters, the then 21-year-old Ulsterman was playing beautifully and the expectation was that he would win the first of many majors.
Reaching the 10th, McIlroy was struggling but he still led by one, only for a horror show that ripped apart his chances with a triple-bogey seven.
He eventually limped in with an eight-over 80 that evoked memories of his second-round 80 at last year's British Open after he fired a 63 to seize the 18-hole lead.
South African outsider Charl Schwartzel meanwhile went in the other direction, with birdies on the final four holes at Augusta National to swipe the Green Jacket awarded to the winner of the Masters.
Many praised the way that easy-going McIlroy dealt with the blow to his self-confidence and ambitions.
"It was a great experience for me. I took the positives from it of that week. There wasn't many positives to take from the Sunday. It's hard, it's the first time in that situation," the now 22-year-old said at Congressional Golf Club on Tuesday as he prepared to play in his third straight US Open.
"You're going to be feeling the pressure a little bit, and I certainly did. I felt a little differently on the Sunday than I had done the previous few days, but that's natural.
"You're in with a great chance to win your first major and it just doesn't happen.
"But you just move on; that's all you can do.
"It's not the end of the world. You analyze it, you pick things from it what you think you could have done better.
"And when you get yourself into that position again you try and put those things that you want to do better into practice."
McIlroy is still stuck on two wins as a pro - at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic and the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship.
But his form has been consistently good enough to keep him firmly entrenched in the world top 10.
He has also been spreading his wings recently in his new role as an ambassador for UN children's organisation UNICEF, visiting Haiti at the start of the month to help raise awareness for the plight of children and families struggling to survive in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince in January 2010.
That was, he said, a somber experience that fully put into perspective the mundane ups and downs that can beset professional golfers.
"I thought I had perspective before going to Haiti, and then actually seeing it, it just gives you a completely different view on the world and the game that you play," he said.
"It just makes you feel so lucky that I'm able just to sit here and drink a bottle of water, just the normal things that everyone does that you take for granted.
"They didn't have a clue who I was."
The Masters collapse has done little to douse enthusiasm among punters about McIlroy and he is still among the betting favourites to make it back-to-back wins for Ulstermen at the US Open following Graeme McDowell's win at Pebble Beach last year.
A McIlroy win on Sunday would not surprise two-time US Open winner Ernie Els, who was fullsome in his praise of the Irishman, who be believes could make golfing history in the years to come.
"He's got all the talent in the world. He's a future number one without a doubt," he said.
"First time I ever saw him, I thought, he's incredible. And he is incredible. And he's still learning."
BETHESDA, June 14, 2011 (AFP) - Graeme McDowell believes it is time to get on with the rest of his career a year after he made his major breakthrough by winning the US Open.
Up until last year's edition of the year's second major at Pebble Beach, the Ulsterman had been better-known as a top amateur and US collegiate champion who had failed to fully fulfill his potential.
After his stunning come-from-behind win in California, though, he was propelled into golfing stardom and he responded with last-day Ryder Cup heroics for Europe, a playoff win over Tiger Woods and a spot in the top 10.
It was all stirring stuff and the personable McDowell lapped it up, but there was a price to pay and he duly paid it as his golf game suffered from the saturation he was experiencing both on and off the course.
"It was such a busy end to 2010 that 2011 seemed to just be there all of a sudden on my doorstep and I was in Hawaii and in the Middle East, and those four weeks that came right after the Middle East, there's no doubt I came back after those four weeks and I wasn't the same guy." he said.
"I wasn't swinging it the same way. I wasn't feeling the same way.
"Sometimes a run of momentum and adrenaline sort of has to hit a brick wall, as I guess I hit my brick wall. I've been trying to get over that wall ever since.
"At some point, those kind of runs, I guess, inevitably have to come to an end, especially if you're playing as much golf as I was."
Still, the 31-year-old who was brought up playing golf on the famed links of Portrush believes that the last few weeks have shown that he has gotten back that edge and focus to his game that has been missing.
There have been no more tournament wins but strong, if inconsistent, performances at the Players Championship, the British PGA and the Welsh Open have brought him into the US Open with a renewed feeling of optimism.
And the fact that he has now finally handed back the US Open trophy he has been displaying to all and sundry over the last year provides him with a fitting symbol that the page is turning.
"If anything, I feel like the glare is off me this week," he said. "I feel like I've done it.
"I've spent the last just under 12 months looking back at Pebble. I spent the last six months reflecting on 2010.
"And I mean, somehow having arrived here this week, I feel like I've done it now.
"I'm back yeah, my US Open trophy is back here with the USGA. I've handed it back and I'm ready to sort of get on with the rest of my career now."
McDowell says he is delighted with his draw for the first two rounds, which sees him set of in the company of British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and US Amateur champion Peter Uihlein.
"I couldn't ask for a better group than that. I'm excited," he said.
"I feel less pressure already this week. I'm hoping it continues to Thursday. I really feel like I'm in a good frame of mind this week."
BETHESDA, June 15, 2011 (AFP) - Golf's five top-ranked players will start the 111th US Open off the 10th tee on Thursday as a host of stars begin their major title bid on a testy par-3 hole firing to a waterside green.
In Congressional Country Club's revamped layout from its host role at the 1997 US Open, the former 18th hole has been flipped tee to green to become the 10th, featuring water in front of the green and bunkers to the back and side.
"It will be awkward," World No. 2 Lee Westwood said. "Obviously in the morning the ball is not quite flying as far, so starting on the 10th, it'll be a big shot."
The US Golf Association began starting players off the front and back nines in 2002 as a way to help ensure the full field of 156 could complete rounds of nearly five hours between dawn and dusk.
That means a Thursday or Friday start for everyone that sets up to be a 4-iron over water off an elevated tee to a green guarded by bunkers to the back and side.
"I can't see too many tougher holes to start on, especially off that back tee," said Ernie Els, the 1994 and 1997 US Open winner. "Your first hole of the day could be a 4-iron over water and a bunker at the back.
"Incredibly difficult start. So you have to be on right from the go. It'll be interesting to see how the guys cope."
The superstar feature group of World No. 1 Luke Donald, fellow Englishman Westwood and World No. 3 Martin Kaymer of Germany will begin off the 10th tee at 8:06 in the morning, the seventh trio to start the US Open on the back side.
"It's certainly a challenging start," Donald said. "I would have preferred to tee off one early on. It's not too often you begin on a par-3. It's just a different kind of feel. It's something you just have to deal with."
Fifth-ranked Phil Mickelson will celebrate his 46th birthday Thursday with an afternoon start on the back nine alongside fellow American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy.
"It's fine being the first hole of the day because you are just trying to get into the flow of the round," Mickelson said. "And even though it's a tough shot, it's really only one shot. You have to hit an iron shot where you can get up and down."
Mickelson, however, is no fan of the 218-yard 10th hole.
"Eighteen is like a brilliantly designed golf hole -- I think 10 is the exact opposite," Mickelson said. "The average guy can't play that hole. He can't carry that water and get it stopped on that green."
Mickelson will be satisfied with four pars on the 10th for the week.
"When I play that hole, 3 is a great score. I'll take 3 every day, and if I happen to make a 4, so be it," he said.
"But you've got to take the front out of play, so you have to miss that hole long, and you might hit a shot out of the bunker. And I've spent some time out of that sand. I think I can get it up and down to most of those pins.
Hopefully I'll take the water out of play, be either on the back edge of the green or just over and be able to salvage some pars there. The whole back nine is a good stretch. Hopefully I can play them well and move on."
Others who start off the 10th tee Thursday include World No. 4 and US top man Steve Stricker, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, Irishman Padraig Harrington, South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Retief Goosen, South Korean Yang Yong-Eun and Australia's Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy.
As if the 10th is not headache enough, it is followed by the 494-yard par-4 11th, an uphill march to a green flanked by water right and bunkers left.
"It's going to be a very tough start to the day and then you've got pretty much a 500-yard par-4 straight up the hill with a ditch on the right," said Westwood.
"To be honest, though, if you were given the opportunity to start anywhere on this golf course it would be a tough start because they're all tough holes. It's one of my favorite golf courses and probably one of the toughest and best tests if you're looking for an all-around player."
More stories to come as we get closer and closer to the US Open, stay tuned!