By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Of all the storylines dominating the build-up to next week's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, perhaps the most intriguing is Phil Mickelson's emotional bid for a second consecutive major.
The American left-hander has never won his national open where he has been one of the most popular drawcards, despite several agonizingly close calls over the years and five runner-up finishes in his last 11 starts.
While world number one Tiger Woods has watched his own golfing stock slide since his stunning fall from grace at the end of last year, Mickelson has established himself as the game's best player in the eyes of many.
He ended his 2009 campaign in barn-storming fashion, clinching the PGA Tour's season-ending Tour Championship in September and the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in November after overshadowing Woods in each of those high-profile events.
Since returning to the U.S. circuit for this season, short game magician Mickelson has exuded confidence with his driving under much more control and his putting in tip-top shape.
Although his early results were not what he wanted, he peaked at the best possible time to claim his third Green Jacket with a three-shot victory at the U.S. Masters in April.
Mickelson has since recorded top-five finishes in two of his next four starts, most recently at last week's Memorial tournament where he tied for fifth.
"I came here looking for confidence, and I found some," he told reporters of his Memorial display. "I also came to see what areas of my game needed some work, and I found those."
This week, the four-times major champion has worked hard on his putting with former PGA Tour player Dave Stockton, who has helped sharpen this area of his game over the last year.
"Just making sure my touch is sharp and ready for the Open," Mickelson said. "Putting is going to be so critical."
A native Californian who has clinched the PGA Tour's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am three times, Mickelson has made no secret of his burning desire to triumph in a U.S. Open.
"I want to win this tournament badly," the world number two said. "Winning this tournament would be something that would help define my career."
Although Woods has fallen well short of his own lofty standards since returning to the game from a self-imposed exile of five months, he lives and breathes for the majors and can never be underestimated.
At last week's Memorial, where he was competing in only his fourth event this year, he again struggled off the tee on his way to a tie for 19th but felt he had made overall progress.
"I have to take it step-by-step," said Woods, who has battled neck pain and parted ways with his long-time swing coach Hank Haney since returning to the PGA Tour following revelations of his marital infidelity.
"I hit shots this week I hadn't hit in a long time and got four rounds in. I made putts. Just keep refining it."
When the U.S. Open was last held at Pebble Beach in 2000, Woods stunned the sports world by charging to a staggering 15-shot victory, a record margin in major championship golf.
With so many question marks still hovering over his game and emotional composure since his sordid private life was exposed last year, another lop-sided triumph appears to be totally out of the question.
Majestic Pebble Beach, frequently buffeted by ocean winds, has some of the smallest greens in golf and Woods knows better than most that you have to be on top of your game to flourish.
"It's a shot-making golf course," the 34-year-old American said. "You have to hit the ball well there because the greens are so small ... and then also they have so much more pitch."
As ever at a U.S. Open where 'plodding' rather than 'birdie hunting' is the name of the game, the ability to minimize errors and stay patient on slick greens and tight fairways flanked by thick, graduated rough will be defining traits in the make-up of next week's champion.
Other candidates for victory include double U.S. Open winners Ernie Els and Retief Goosen of South Africa, Americans Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk, Britain's in-form world number three Lee Westwood and Irishman Padraig Harrington.
It could also be a week to remember for one of the younger guns, who have already made a significant impact this year.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)