By John Strege
Tournaments played off-Broadway take their stars anyway they can get them, even if it's only a way station for them. So it was that Phil Mickelson turned up on the FedEx St. Jude Classic marquee last week, passing through Memphis en route from Philadelphia to Philadelphia and the U.S. Open.
Even approaching 43, Mickelson is still learning lessons the hard way, having concluded finally that the best way for him to enter a major championship on a full tank is to fill up the week before.
"I didn't play well at the Masters this year taking the week off [before]," Mickelson said in Memphis. "I know that for me to be sharp mentally, especially going into a tournament where the penalty for missing is so great, like the U.S. Open, it's important that I'm sharp and I'm ready to play."
The benefit to the tournament, in addition to an enhanced playbill, is that the star occasionally stumbles into a victory. Mickelson nearly did so, ultimately tying for second, two strokes back of winner Harris English.
Mickelson, at any rate, already has secured his place in history and winning any additional number of tournaments of the ilk of the St. Jude Classic won't alter it. Winning majors will, which is why he was here, and it bodes well that he was in contention.
He last played in Memphis four years ago, when the following week he tied for second in the Open at Bethpage Black. In each of the four major championships he's won, he played the week before and finished in the top 10 in three of them, most memorably at the BellSouth Classic in 2006. He won by 13 strokes, then followed with a victory in the Masters.
"I really like playing here," he said of the TPC Southwind. "It's a good golf course. It's precise. It puts a real premium on hitting the fairways. You can then be aggressive into the greens. The shot-making is very similar [to Merion]."
Mickelson acquainted himself with Merion, outside Philadelphia, early last week, spending two days there. "It's really a wonderful setup," he said. "It's the best I've seen. I think the reason I like it so much is they've made the hard holes more difficult. But they did not make the easy holes harder. They gave you birdie opportunities on the easy holes, and they made tough pars a little bit harder, which allows the player that is playing well to separate himself from the field."
He then came to Memphis to continue his preparation under tournament conditions. "This is a good thing for me to try to continue to play better each day in the tournament," he said. "I think that's why I enjoy the competing element before a big event like the U.S. Open next week."
Whatever questions he might have had about the state of his game he answered definitively from the 18th fairway on Sunday. Trailing by two, Mickelson hit a shot that was tracking for the pin. "Get in," he said. It nearly did. He was left with a tap-in birdie.
"Is he ready for the U.S. Open?" CBS' Ian Baker-Finch asked. "Yes, sir."