Friday's golf: Mickelson changes his mind, accepts exemption to US Open

Associated Press

Phil Mickelson is assured at least one more crack at the major that has given him the most heartache. He accepted a special exemption Friday to play the U.S. Open.

Mickelson becomes the first player since Vijay Singh in 2010 to receive an exemption without having won the U.S. Open, and he’s not without merit. He has won five majors – all of them except the U.S. Open – to go along with his 44 victories on the PGA Tour.

He has been eligible for every U.S. Open dating to 1994, but the 50-year-old Mickelson has fallen out of the top 100 in the world ranking. He had said in February 2020, a month before golf shut down because of the pandemic, that he would not accept an exemption even if the USGA offered him one.

Phil Mickelson smiles to the crowd after the third hole during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

He was prepared to go through 36-hole qualifying on June 7, a week before the U.S. Open returns to Torrey Pines in his hometown of San Diego.

“Winning the U.S. Open has been a lifelong and elusive dream, and I’ve come close so many times,” Mickelson said. “You can’t win if you don’t play. I’m honored and appreciative of the USGA for the opportunity and look forward to playing in my hometown on a golf course I grew up on.”

No one has suffered more in the U.S. Open than Mickelson, who needs only that major to complete the career Grand Slam. He holds the U.S. Open record with six runner-up finishes, and two moments stand out.

In 2006 at Winged Foot, he took a one-shot lead to the final hole when he missed the fairway well to the left and then curiously tried to hit 3-iron around a tree blocking his path to the green. It hit the tree, his third shot plugged in a bunker and he failed to get up-and-down, making double bogey to finish one shot behind.

And then at Merion in 2013, he had the 54-hole lead for the first time and was still leading when he hit wedge over the par-3 13th green and made bogey on the easiest hole. He made another bogey with a wedge in his hand from 121 yards away on No. 15 and closed with a third bogey to finish two shots behind.

He also was runner-up at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 when Payne Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the last hole, twice at Bethpage Black (2002 to Tiger Woods, 2009 to Lucas Glover) and Shinnecock Hills in 2004 to Retief Goosen when Mickelson made double bogey on the 17th hole.

“Phil Mickelson’s incredible USGA playing record and overall career achievements are among the most noteworthy in the game’s history,” said Mike Davis, outgoing CEO of the USGA. “We are thrilled to welcome him to this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.”

Mickelson grew up playing the public course along the Pacific bluffs, and he is a three-time winner of the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines. The last one was 20 years ago, and he has been critical of the redesign by Rees Jones to get the South Course ready for the 2008 U.S. Open.

He has not finished in the top 10 at the tour event at Torrey since a runner-up finish 10 years ago.

Mickelson tied for 18th in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, five shots out of the playoff won by Tiger Woods. Lefty curiously chose not to carry a driver that week on a course measuring 7,643 yards at sea level.

Mickelson failed to qualify for the U.S. Open in 1993, when he lost in a playoff for the final spot to a player who made a 50-foot putt on him. He didn’t play at Erin Hills in 2017 because his oldest daughter was graduating from high school that week.

He was prepared to go through qualifying again, and was adamant about it at Pebble Beach in February 2020 when he said, “I am either going to get in the field on my own or I’ll have to try to qualify. I’m not going to take a special exemption.”

He made it to Winged Foot for the U.S. Open last September when the USGA had to eliminate qualifying because of the pandemic and expanded the world ranking exemption from the top 60 to the top 70. Mickelson was No. 66 at the time.

Mickelson has not always had the best relationship with the USGA, often criticizing the way the course is set up. He made his strongest point in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, where a few pin positions were so difficult on baked-out greens that players had trouble keeping putts from going off the putting surface.

On the 13th hole in the third round, Mickelson’s putt went by the hole and he ran over and swatted it back toward the cup as the ball was still moving, an egregious violation. He was given a two-shot penalty and made a 10 on the hole.

He said last year his decision not to accept an exemption had nothing to do with his feelings toward the USGA. It was more about merit.

“If I get in, I deserve to be there. If I don’t, I don’t,” he said at the time. “I don’t want a sympathy spot. If I am good enough to make it and qualify, then I need to earn my spot there.”

Burns keeps rolling with 2nd-round 62, 2-shot lead at Nelson: Sam Burns birdied six of his last eight holes Friday for a 10-under 62 and a two-stroke lead over Alex Noren at 17 under after the second round of the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Noren shot 64 to get to 15 under, and K.H. Lee had his second 65 to reach 14 under. Doc Redman bogeyed two of his last three holes for a 67 that left him 13 under.

J.J. Spaun was 12 under, following a first-round 63 that left him tied with Jordan Spieth with a 69. Spieth shot 70, leaving the local favorite in the group at 11 under that included Matt Kuchar and Charl Schwartzel.

Scoring went up overall along with the wind a day after the new home of the Nelson, the par-72 TPC Craig Ranch north of Dallas, surrendered 94 rounds in the 60s in its debut. In the second round, there were 93 scores of 70 or higher.

The tougher conditions didn’t affect Burns, playing for the first time since his first PGA Tour win two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship in Florida.

Before Burns won at Innisbrook, the 24-year-old Louisiana native had twice failed to convert 54-hole leads, in the Houston Open last fall and the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February.

Now he has a tour-best five 36-hole leads this season after following a 65 with the lowest round of his career. Burns is trying to become the first to get his first two PGA Tour victories in consecutive starts since Camilo Villegas in 2008.

►Stephen Ames shoots 66 to take Mitsubishi Electric lead: Stephen Ames shot a 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions’ Mitsubishi Electric Classic.

The 57-year-old Ames had an opening bogey and seven birdies for a one-stroke lead over Paul Goydos.

“I don’t think I had one highlight, I think I was very steady Eddie,” Ames said. “I hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens to give myself a lot of opportunities.”

A naturalized Canadian citizen from Trinidad, the four-time PGA Tour champion won the 2017 tournament at TPC Sugarloaf for his lone senior title.

“I think a combination of everything,” Ames said. “Hitting the ball really nicely and been working on my putting, a couple things on my putting that came through today, which is nice.”

Goydos played the back nine in 5 under, closing with a birdie on the par-5 18th. The 56-year-old Goydos has five senior victories after winning twice on the PGA Tour.

Gene Sauers followed at 68, and John Huston and Billy Andrade shot 69.

Jim Furyk, 2019 winner Scott McCarron, 2014 champion Miguel Angel Jimenez and Kenny Perry were in the group at 70. McCarron also won two PGA Tour events at TPC Sugarloaf.

Alex Cejka shot 71. He won the Regions Tradition last week in a playoff for his first senior victory, beating Steve Stricker in a playoff.

Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz had a quadruple bogey on the par-4 17th and a double bogey on 18 in an 84. He was 79th among the 80 finishers.

Wes Short Jr. shot 85, making five straight double bogeys in the middle of the round.

►Pepperell leads by 1 after 3rd round at British Masters: Eddie Pepperell holed a birdie putt from 40 feet on the 18th to take a one-shot lead after the third round of the British Masters and move into position to win the event for the second time in four years.

The English golfer shot a second straight 4-under 68 at The Belfry to jump to 10 under par and emerge from a logjam at the top of the leaderboard.

Six players were one stroke off the lead – Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre and Calum Hill (both 70), Italians Edoardo Molinari (64) and Guido Migliozzo (67), Poland’s Adrian Meronk (65) and South Africa’s Dean Burmester (65) – and the top 26 players were separated by five shots.

Tournament host Danny Willett was three shots off the lead after a 68.

Pepperell was in the world’s top 35 after winning this event at Walton Heath in 2018 and again after finishing runner-up in his title defense at Hillside, but has fallen down the rankings. He began the week in 210th.