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DEREK LAWRENSON: Can golden oldie Phil Mickelson complete the set by winning the US Open?

Last Sunday, here in the dramatic clifftop setting of La Jolla, it was Graduation Day for the blessed students of the University of San Diego. 

Now the campus has emptied, it’s the turn of the world’s most qualified golfers to mix with the hang gliders in the picturesque enclave of Torrey Pines.

First into the media centre on Monday for the 121st US Open was the man who’s lived his entire life in these parts; the man who plays his sport with the daring of the gliders while compiling a list of achievements to make any scholar proud.

The one thing Phil Mickelson lacks, of course, is the title on offer this time, and what a litany of sporting heartache that represents, the most epic indeed, in the entire history of major championship golf.

Phil Mickelson will be looking to finally end his wait for success at the US Open at the age of 50

No other player stretching back to the first Open in 1860 has finished runner-up on six occasions in the same major without ever claiming the precious prize. Now the local hero gets to play in his home town.

‘It’s a unique opportunity,’ he acknowledges. ‘I’ve had the chance to prepare properly and I’ve put in the work. I’ve shut down the noise, turned off my phone. But you still need to execute and you still need some luck.’

A month ago, we thought his appearance would be every bit as ceremonial as the one for the students in their gowns and mortar boards. The only reason for his place in the field was courtesy of a special exemption granted by the organisers, the United States Golf Association.

Then, one of the truly great players of all time did something to confirm his place in the pantheon, by becoming the oldest major winner in history at the USPGA Championship. He gave back his special exemption and accepted the winner’s perk of a spot in US Opens for at least the next five years.

‘This might be my last realistic chance, I recognise that,’ he said. 

‘After the USPGA I missed the cut in my next event, so I gave myself the weekend off to cherish the victory and then it was back to work here at Torrey. I’ve not played the course much but I’ve spent an awful lot of time on the greens, learning again the nuances. 

‘Being a US Open, you know there will be flags that are tucked, so I’ve practised a lot from 40ft, because you’re going to have a lot of those putts.’

If Mickelson never wins the US Open then he will especially regret not prevailing in 2006

This will be Mickelson’s 30th US Open, with the collection of runner-up finishes starting at Pinehurst in the last century. ‘You’re about to become a father, and there will be many more US Open chances for you,’ said the winner, the late Payne Stewart, as he held Mickelson’s crestfallen face in his hands.

The closest he came was the haunting loss at Winged Foot in 2006. Needing a par four on the 18th to become the champion, he took a double bogey six after a horrendously wild tee shot. ‘I can’t believe I did that, I’m such an idiot,’ he said, echoing the thoughts of the watching millions.

At Kiawah, we saw a different Mickelson, a man with total focus and control, a golfer reinvented. Now it’s Torrey, the course he played countless times as a kid and where he won three times in his first decade as a pro.

At Kiawah, Mickelson was different, a man with total focus and control, a golfer reinvented 

This, however, is a vastly changed course to the one he grew up on. Three months after his third victory in the PGA Tour event staged here every year – the Farmers Insurance Open – the bulldozers moved in, and Mickelson was none too impressed with the considerable makeover. He’s never won in the 20 years since the transformation.

In Monday’s practice ground under an intermittent coastal fog, he played with defending champion, Bryson DeChambeau, in what might prove a Ryder Cup partnership in September. On one hole the short game sorcerer spent a good deal of time showing the Mad Scientist the rudiments of the flop shot.

Tomorrow, Old Father Time will have another dig in the ribs of Mickelson, as he turns 51. Down at the adjacent Gliderport, they’ll surely appreciate the glorious defiance of a man who continues to shoot for the sky.

Who Els can win for South Africa? One of this fab four…

It’s almost a decade now since a South African golfer won a major but that lean run, the longest since the period between Gary Player’s last victory in 1978 and Ernie Els’s first in 1994, surely won’t last much longer.

The question is which of the new generation will get to the winner’s post first, to follow in the footsteps of the gilded quintet of Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. 

Garrick Higgo (left) and Wilco Nienaber (right) are among South Africa’s great hopes

Will it be the brilliant 22-year-old lefty who won two events at a canter on the European Tour last month and then followed up by breezing to his first victory in America on Sunday? 

Or the wiry 21-year-old with a faster clubhead speed than Bryson DeChambeau? 

Maybe the 27-year-old who overcame a childhood stutter caused through accidental poisoning when he was two, and an unfair nine-month ban for beta-blocker use as a teen, when he was taking them legally to overcome anxiety caused by the infant trauma? 

Then there’s the stylish 31-year-old, if he can just learn to curb the temper that saw him smash a tee box at the last major.

They are, respectively, Garrick Higgo, Wilco Nienaber, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Erik Van Rooyen.

Technically, these four are right up there with the previous generation.  

Christiaan Bezuidenhout (left) and Erik van Rooyen (right) are also aiming to make an impact

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