HAVEN, Wis. - For a man who waited so long to be called a major champion, it's hard to quibble over a few misplaced shots.
But Phil Mickelson understands what could have been at stake today. He's not complaining, just contemplating.
"I'm three shots away from having tomorrow's round be for the Grand Slam," the reigning Masters Tournament champion said. "Sure I think about it."
With a third-round 67 on Saturday that was so close to being even better, Mickelson put himself in the next-to-last group for the third consecutive major. He'll go off at 8-under-par 208, four shots behind but right in front of leader Vijay Singh.
Oh, what might have been.
Mickelson finished 1-2-3 in the season's first three majors. Hitting for a golfing cycle of sorts, or being the first player to ever finish in the top three or four at every major in a season, is not the preferred target.
"He's not thinking like that," said Mickelson's swing teacher, Rick Smith, "but he wants to get in position to have a chance."
Whether Mickelson can reel in a quality front-runner such as Singh doesn't entirely matter. Win or lose, Mickelson's 2004 season will long be remembered as one of the great near-misses of all time. It was so close to perfect.
After a magical Masters, Mickelson led both the U.S. Open and British Open on the back nines Sunday. If not for a fluky three-putt double bogey on a baked-out, dead 17th green at Shinnecock Hills and the lone bogey over his final 54 holes on the 13th at Royal Troon, Mickelson at the very least participates in major playoffs.
Three little strokes that could have given him a shot at the greatest
accomplishment in golf. All from the formerly greatest player never to win a major who started 0-for-46.
Yet Mickelson won't dwell on it. Comforted by being a major champion, the left-hander sees his consistency as a sign of greater things to come. Maybe another major is sealed today. Maybe next year. Maybe over the next six years as he approaches 40.
Mickelson is finally dialed into a game-plan that makes him a favorite every time he tees it up in a major. Where it once seemed possible that he might never win one, it now seems inevitable that he'll collect more.
"I'm excited about the possibilities of where it can take me," he said.
Mickelson doesn't even seem to kick himself for all the years he spent misplaying his aggressive hand in these events or all of the majors that slipped away since he arrived on the professional scene 12 years ago.
He admits now that he was a little too stubborn and a little too lazy to adapt to the style that now works so well for him. His brains and his work ethic needed to catch up to his talent.
"I haven't really been open-minded enough to listen to the ideas of Rick Smith and Dave Pelz until this year, and now I really feel like I'm on the right direction," he said. "I don't know if I would have worked as hard and been as disciplined on these drills and fundamentals and so forth ... eight or nine years ago. It's just a lot of work. It's a lot of work. But it's paying off and it's worth it."
It's paying off again at Whistling Straits, though Mickelson is not exactly where he wants to be. The only major he's won is also the only major he's led entering the final round.
"It's much easier having a couple of shots in hand than it is trying to chase because you don't have room for an error," he said. "But at least I have a chance. I know I can shoot quite a few under par on this golf course, and if I do that I should have a good opportunity."
Mickelson hoped to shoot 65 on Saturday and get to 10-under, figuring that would put him close enough on the heels of the leaders.
But despite going 5-under on the front side, Mickelson could only manage even par on the back.
"I just didn't get to the score I wanted," Mickelson said. "Certainly I would have liked a better back side, but I still have a much better chance at it tomorrow for the final round than I did starting today."
He has much better chances than he did starting the year.
And this was so, so, so close to being the chance of a lifetime.