SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Phil Mickelson (search) is developing a healthy appetite for majors.
Long known as the lovable loser, Mickelson looked like the man to beat Friday in the U.S. Open (search) with a flawless round of 4-under 66 at Shinnecock Hills that left the Masters champion tied with Shigeki Maruyama (search) and in great position to capture the second leg of the Grand Slam.
"Phil the Thrill" appears to be a thing of the past. Mickelson kept his driver in the bag, kept big numbers off his card and made every putt inside 8 feet — the kind of golf that usually wins a U.S. Open.
And if anyone thought he would be satisfied after finally slipping on a green jacket, forget it.
"I really haven't felt that sense of relief," said Mickelson, who ended an 0-for-42 drought at Augusta National. "What I have felt is a sense of excitement and anticipation. I can't wait for the upcoming majors now because I feel like I'm onto something to play well in the big tournaments."
Cheered on by a raucous crowd that loves Mickelson as much as he loves New York, he finished two trips around Shinnecock Hills (search) at 6-under 134. Maruyama joined him late in the afternoon with a 2-under 68, letting a chance to lead a major by himself for the first time slip away when he drove into the rough on his final hole and made bogey.
They will be in the final pairing Saturday, and Maruyama knows who will get the loudest cheers.
"I will get ear plugs for tomorrow," he said.
Jeff Maggert had a 67 and was one shot behind, while former U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Fred Funk each had a 66 and were at 4-under 136.
Shinnecock Hills was plenty tough but once again lacked the wind that usually terrorizes the world's best players. Still, it only accepts the best golf, which was evident on a leaderboard that featured all the top players.
Well, all but No. 1.
Ernie Els (search) birdied four straight holes to jump into contention and finished with a 67, only three shots out of the lead at 137. Vijay Singh had a 70 and was another stroke behind.
As for Tiger Woods (search), he spent much of the round flirting with the cut line until a couple of big par saves, back-to-back birdies and an 8-foot par putt on the final hole gave him a 69. He was at 141, seven shots behind and still holding out hope.
"The great thing about it is the guys aren't going to run away and hide on this golf course," Woods said.
Maybe not, but catching Mickelson is no picnic.
Lefty spent three days at Shinnecock Hills last weekend, learning all the nuances on the links-styled course. He attributes his great play more to preparation than a burden being lifted from ending his major drought.
"I feel as though I'm not having any surprises," he said. "I know that if I hit it over here, I'm OK; if I hit it over here, I don't have a chance, and so forth. I think that has given me a lot of confidence playing the course."
Angel Cabrera had a 71 to join Els at 3-under 137, while '95 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin had a 71 and was in the group at 138 with Singh.
Jay Haas, the first-round co-leader trying at 50 to become the oldest winner of a major, made double bogey on the final hole for a 74 and slipped six shots behind.
Mickelson had to play three holes Friday morning to complete his first round, and he immediately got in trouble by going long on the par-3 seventh. His ball was buried in a thick mess of grass, and he faced a steep slope to a green that went down toward the bunkers.
He chopped it up the hill in a safe place, rolled his par putt some 8 feet by and holed that for a worthy bogey.
"It could have easily been worse, so I was very pleased to make bogey there," he said.
Mickelson followed with a 12-foot birdie and closed out his 68, and those pivotal putts carried him in the second round. During one stretch on the front nine, he made five consecutive putts between 5 and 10 feet. One was for birdie, the rest to save par.
His control off the tee was phenomenal, mostly with a 3-wood.
"Left chimney," caddie Jim MacKay told him on the ninth tee, picking out the target from the clubhouse high on the hill. Another perfect shot.
Through it all, the size of the gallery swelled, and they held nothing back.
"Win it for the New Yawkers," one man cried.
The back nine looked more like a Main Street parade, not a major championship. Mickelson looked both ways, grinning, smiling, feeling like he was the luckiest man alive. In between this celebration — or was it a coronation? — he even hit a few golf shots, and most of them were pure.
"That's the way we're all striving to play — the way he's playing now," Kirk Triplett said. "There are a lot of hard shots out there, and he hit a lot of good ones."
Mickelson made them all look easy.
He opted for fairway metals off the tee and rarely left the middle of the fairway. A 6-iron into No. 12 hopped hard and trickled just inside the approach of Triplett, giving Mickelson a perfect read from about 18 feet. It was similar to his walk-off birdie at the Masters, when Chris DiMarco putted first on the same line.
"I call it being 'DiMarcoed,' and it's a good thing," Mickelson said. The putt was good all the way, putting Mickelson alone in the lead at 5 under.
The par-5 16th — a hole he played in 6 over to cost him the '95 Open — was executed to perfection. He hit 3-wood off the tee, 4-iron into the bunker and blasted out to 3 feet for birdie.
He missed only three fairways and three greens, the recipe for winning a U.S. Open. But that's not what caught Mickelson's attention as he looked at a sheet with his statistics.
"Minus 6," he said.
Equally pleasing was the reception he got at every turn, none greater than the 18th hole.
"I can't imagine what a great feeling Corey Pavin had in '95, to have that amphitheater effect and to have that type of ovation," Mickelson said. "I was able to experience that this year at Augusta, and it's awesome."
Nothing would be sweeter than hearing it again Sunday before a New York gallery that loves Lefty for all the right reasons.