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Column: Mickelson off to good start at Pinehurst; can he avoid late slide this time around?

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PINEHURST, N.C. - There's no escaping the feeling that Phil Mickelson is setting himself up for another fall.

It's happened a half-dozen times before at the U.S. Open, almost always following the same script. Mickelson digs a foothold near the top of the leaderboard in the opening round, hangs on, hangs on and then plays the last few holes on Sunday a stroke or three on the wrong side of par. Inevitably, somebody else squeezes by and instead of a trophy, he takes home another "best supporting actor" title.

Almost on cue, Lefty shot an even-par 70 on his first competitive tour across the scruffy, renovated Pinehurst No. 2 layout, and predicted once again this could be the year.

"This is a special tournament, a tournament that means a lot to me," he began. "I don't know if it will be this week or next year or the year after. I do still have a hundred per cent confidence that I'll be able to break through and get one.

"I do feel, though, that this tournament gives me a great chance on this golf course," he added, "because I don't feel like I have to be perfect."

Mickelson was close to that Thursday with nearly every club in the bag, save the putter. He even surprised himself by hitting every fairway every time he leaned on his normally wayward driver. Golfers like to say they make their own breaks, but Mickelson caught one early in the day after a report in The New York Times said federal authorities found no evidence that he had traded in the stock of a company, Clorox, that is part of an insider-trading probe.

The same report said Mickelson, as well as famed sports gambler Billy Walters, are still under investigation over separate well-timed trades they made in a second company, Dean Foods, in 2012 just before its stock soared. Mickelson was asked about that after the round and he replied the way he has since reports that both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission were looking into those trades first surfaced.

"Like I said before, with an investigation going on, I'm not going to comment any further on it. But I'll continue to say that I've done absolutely nothing wrong."

When pressed about whether he'd pocketed $1 million by trading Dean Foods' stock, he essentially gave the same answer: "I do have a lot to say and I will say it at the right time."

And either way, Mickelson said a few moments later that he's got more than enough on his plate at the moment.

"It hasn't affected my preparation or anything for this tournament. I know I haven't done anything wrong," he said, "so I haven't been stressed about it."

We'll take Mickelson at his word on this one, since his history at the U.S. Open — let alone at this venue — is the kind of stuff that winds up on the cutting-room floor of a horror flick. He was playing alongside the late Payne Stewart here in 1999 and getting ready for a playoff when Stewart rolled in a 15-footer for par and the win.

Mickelson's wife, Amy, was very pregnant when he arrived and his caddie, Bones Mackay, carried a beeper that had it gone off, would have sent Lefty scrambling to the nearest airport for the next flight home. Turns out his daughter, Amanda, who's now almost 15, was born later that day, and just like the rest of us, all she knows is that when comes to the U.S. Open, her father has a funny way of finishing second a lot.

Mickelson figures the fastest way to end that streak is to get hot with the putter. He's switched to the claw grip for this tournament, and while it didn't hurt his chances inside 10 feet or so, he didn't make anything longer and Pinehurst's turtleback greens rarely let approach shots settle any closer. How long he stays with the new grip is anybody's guess.

"It might be weeks, it might be months, it might be days, hours, I don't know," Mickelson said. "It's just one of those things. Last year I putted just so well for a year and a half, and I've kind of over-done what I was doing. I've got to kind of settle back in."

Mickelson turns 44 on June 16 and isn't likely to master too many new tricks. He's already captured the other three legs of the Grand Slam and fortuitously, the absence of rough and the premium on chipping here now make Pinehurst his kind of setup. But he's not about to refuse help from any quarter.

On the par-5 fifth, Mickelson's approach putt rolled over the marker of playing partner Matthew Fitzpatrick, an amateur who's young enough to be his son, and stopped right in front of it.

"He came over and he said, 'Is that all right there?'" Fitzpatrick said, "and he was obviously joking, but I didn't think he was. I said, 'I'm going to need that moved.' And he said, 'Don't worry, I'm only joking.'"

A moment later, Mickelson told Fitzpatrick that hitting the marker had probably saved him from rolling the ball another two feet past the hole.

"I guess if he does win," Fitzpatrick said, brightening, "I've contributed to it a little bit."

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org and follow him at http://www.twitter.com/JimLitke

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