Mickelson ready to roll at Pebble Beach

The stage is set and the principal actors are ready to walk on. The question is, who will be taking the curtain calls on Sunday night when the US Open trophy is handed out for the 110th time.

There are plenty of bit players and popular character actors ready to ignore their cameos parts and step into the spotlight reserved for Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

The lovably eccentric Dubliner Padraig Harrington has three majors on his mantelpiece but  you never know which version of the Irish star is going to turn up. Will it be the dogged assassin who crushed Sergio Garcia at Carnoustie and Oakland Hills; the swashbuckling champion who left the field for dead at Royal Birkdale or the man who’s game has become so erratic over the past two years that not even he knows what’s going to happen next.

“It’s not like I’m carrying in unbelievable form, I’m just trying to hold it together this week and get through one more week,” Harrington said.  “I am looking for something to fall into place and to get me across that line. I’m hopeful, rather than expectant.”

There’s Lee Westwood, the barrel chested Englishman who’s gone third-third-second in his last three major starts. From tee to green he’s the best player in the world but when it comes to scrambling, he struggles and the greenside rough at Pebble Beach as unforgiving as Elin Woods in a divorce settlement negotiation.

By his own admission, Rory McIlroy reckons he still has to serve his time before he can be considered a major championship contender. He was deflecting the pressure, of course, but despite his imperious ball-striking, his short game and putting could be his Achilles’ heel here.

While he’s 23rd for scrambling on the PGA Tour this year, McIlroy is 148th for putting and needs to hit a huge number of greens in regulation this week to contend for his first major title.

A short hitter with great short game skills such as Jim Furyk, Luke Donald or Players Championship winner Tim Clark will have a great chance of surviving on a course that measures just 7,040 yards and plays even shorter thanks to the firm fast conditions.

But all eyes will be on the game’s big two and following his sensationally spectacular and emotionally charged win in the Masters just two months ago, Phil the Thrill is the obvious pick.

Coming to Pebble Beach with some serious swagger following his fourth major championship win at Augusta, everything points to major championship No 5 for the left-hander who will dethrone Woods as world No 1 if he wins this week.

The venue? Check. Mickelson loves Pebble Beach and like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite and Woods - all US Open winners at this venue - he’s won the AT&T Pro-Am. In fact, he’s won it three times.

Playing style? Check. It was once said that Mickelson was too wild off the tee to become a US Open winner but he’s finished second five times and with the rough graduated in recent years, he can miss a fairway and still get close enough to the green to save par. 

With Woods swing looking as creaky as an old gate, several of Mickelson’s peers believe he is ready to finally added his national open to his list of successes.

“If Phil can keep the ball in play at Pebble, he wins. Simple as that,” said Open champion Stewart Cink.

Former Ryder Cup player JJ Henry added: “The way he is playing, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win by a good margin.”

The great Sam Snead ended his career without a US Open on his CV but Mickelson knows he’s going to win one some day and despite the fact that he turned 40 yesterday, he believes there’s plenty of time.  

“I look six years ago when I won The Masters for the first time where my game was at,” Mickelson said. “And even as early as a year ago I see a big difference. And so I feel like even though I’m 40 I’m playing some of my best golf.”

Woods insists his game is close to coming around again. It’s hard to believe him considering how poorly he’s played in his three starts since he came home tied for fourth at Augusta.

Writing off golf’s greatest active champion is always dangerous but unlike Augusta, Pebble Beach offers little respite for the wayward driver of the ball and considering the turmoil in his private life and the recent resignation of his coach Hank Haney, it’s difficult to see the world No 1 winning major No 15.

Ulsterman Gareth Maybin is certainly under no illusions over his chances as he makes his major debut this week.

“I’m not playing great,” the 29-year old Ballyclare man said this week. “I’ll just try to scrap it around and see how well I can chip and putt it.”

When he said that Maybin was secretly planning a major victory in his private life. On Tuesday night he proposed to his long-time girlfriend Liz McMeekin in a romantic cabin on 17 Mile Drive. 

She said, yes. 

As for a US Open match made in heaven, Mickelson won’t want to be a bridesmaid again. He’s the best man and he knows it.