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Phil Mickelson looks to erase ghosts of U.S. Open's past

Adam Hunger / REUTERS

Before Phil Mickelson can claim a career slam of all four golf majors, he must conquer the course that started his career-long struggles at the U.S. Open. 

Mickelson will return to Pinehurst this weekend, the course where he finished runner-up to Payne Stewart after a gut-wrenching Sunday in 1999, starting a string of six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open over 15 years. 

Year Course Score Winner
1999 Pinehurst E Payne Stewart (-1)
2002 Bethpage Black E Tiger Woods (-3)
2004 Shinnecock -2 Retief Goosen (-4)
2006 Winged Foot (+6) Geoff Ogilvy (+5)
2009 Bethpage Black -2 Lucas Glover (-4)
2013 Merion (+3) Justin Rose (+1)

15 years ago at Pinehurst, Stewart sealed a win over Mickelson with a 15-foot putt on 18, one hole after taking the lead with a birdie. Stewart embraced a then 29-year-old Mickelson, assuring him that his chance for glory would come soon. 

In 2002 at Bethpage Black, Mickelson chased Tiger Woods wire-to-wire, failing to overtake Woods at any point over the weekend. 

The root of Mickelson's frustrations began to truly take hold in 2004, when he took a one-stroke lead at Shinnecock after back-to-back birdies on 15 and 16, only to double-bogey 17 by three-putting from inside five feet. The door opened for Retief Goosen, who stepped through it with a birdie and two pars to seal the title. 

From there, the curse seemed to turn cruel. In 2006 at Winged Foot, Lefty held a one-stroke lead on the 18th tee on Sunday, needing par to win. He hit his drive into a hospitality tent, hit his second shot off a tree, and put his third into a bunker. His sand save attempt rolled off the green into the rough, and his chip for bogey to salvage a playoff missed by six feet. Geoff Ogilvy captured the championship from the clubhouse. 

In 2009 at Bethpage, a month after his wife Amy was diagnosed with cancer, Mickelson appeared destined to overcome adversity. On Sunday he eagled 13 to grab a tie of the lead, only to watch it slip through his hands again. He missed a gimmie birdie putt on 14, three-putted for bogey on 15, missed another birdie on 16, and bogeyed 17, finishing two shots back of Lucas Glover. 

The loss gave Mickelson his fifth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, giving him sole possession of an inauspicious record. 

Then came last year at Merion, which Mickelson would admit was the worst yet. 

Mickelson lead after the opening three rounds, entering Sunday with a one-stroke lead. He three-putted the 3rd and 5th holes, making double bogey at both. He regained the momentum and a tie for the lead with an incredible eagle on 10, only to bogey 13 and drop a shot back of the lead. He missed a birdie putt on 16 and a par putt on 18, leaving him two shots back of champion Justin Rose. 

"Heartbreak," Mickelson said afterwards. "This is tough to swallow after coming so close. This was my best chance of all of them. I was playing well. I had a golf course I really liked that I could play aggressive on a number of holes. I felt like this was as good an opportunity I could ask for, and to not get it ... it hurts."

He's currently one of 11 players to have won three of the four major championships. Only five (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hoan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Woods) have completed the career slam. 

This weekend, Mickelson has an opportunity to put 15 years of frustration behind him in the place where it all began. 

Nobody said it would be easy. 

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