SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Phil Mickelson knew the question was coming.
So, are you the Greatest Player To Win One Major?
"That is such a nice question to answer, so much nicer than the ones in the past," Mickelson said Tuesday after a practice round for the U.S. Open. "I don't know if I have an answer to you, but it just sounds a lot better."
Mickelson is one of the favorites at Shinnecock Hills, having removed a blight from his otherwise enviable record.
Two months ago at the Masters, Lefty shot 31 on the back nine Sunday, sank an 18-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole and leaped (not very high) into a very special club.
He is clearly more at ease heading into his first major as a major champion, whether it's mingling with a horde of autograph-seeking fans or no longer having to face a mandatory grilling from the media.
"I don't feel different," Mickelson said. "But I do feel like it's enjoyable to answer questions, it's enjoyable to sign autographs, it's enjoyable to play practice rounds without having to feel like, 'Gee, if I could just break through,' or feel the pressure of trying to break through."
Mickelson made his first serious run at a major the last time the Open was played at Shinnecock. In 1995, he tied for fourth, four strokes behind winner Corey Pavin, despite playing the par-5 16th at 6 over for the week.
The rough along the right side that gave him so much trouble had been shaved back this time, making it part of the fairway. For that, Mickelson said, "Thank you."
"My success at the Masters this year stemmed from trying to salvage a half a shot to a shot a round," he said. "It's very easy to look back on '95 and salvage a shot a round there. Just look right to 16, where I threw away six shots on a par 5."
Mickelson makes it sound as though he has no intention of waiting as long for the second major as he did for the first. He's quite mindful of his strong record in the Open, where he was runner-up in both 1999 (to the Payne Stewart at Pinehurst) and 2002 (to Tiger Woods, down the road at Bethpage Black).
"I'm looking more big picture," he said. "I want to try to build on the Masters victory. It was a wonderful, exciting moment for me, and I don't want it to be the pinnacle, per se. I want it to be kind of a steppingstone to playing at that level more often in the majors and having more chances, because I enjoyed it so much that I'm hoping I'll be able to do it some more."
Mickelson played well after the Masters - second at New Orleans, fifth at Charlotte - then fell into a bit of a rut. He missed the cut for the only time this year at the Byron Nelson, then tied for 35th at the Colonial. He blamed those showings on fatigue.
Mickelson sat out the next three events, then got back on the course at the Buick Classic last week. While he only tied for 16th, four rounds at Westchester Country Club gave him some valuable playing time.
"I could feel a little rusty," he said. "It wasn't the best, yet I could feel that things started to come back. I'm very glad that I played."
At Augusta, Mickelson had to be on top of his game to hold off Ernie Els, who finished one stroke back. Make no mistake - Lefty's first major was hardly a fluke.
Els said he wasn't even all that disappointed about the way he lost.
"I've got to take my hat off to Phil," Els said. "I just flat out got beat. There's nothing I could have done much more to win that tournament."
Since then, Mickelson has faced a different question: Is it possible to win a Grand Slam?
He chuckled at the notion.
"It's just amazing what's changed in the last two months," Mickelson said. "We go from 'Will he every win a major?' to 'Is he going to win a Grand Slam?' I haven't really thought about it."
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