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Mickelson goes to a claw for a softer feel on the greens at Pinehurst

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PINEHURST, N.C. - Phil Mickelson began preparations for the U.S. Open in the final round of the St. Jude Classic when he took his left hand off the putter, turned it slightly clockwise and rested the grip between his forefinger and thumb.

In more simple terms, it's known as the "claw" grip.

And that's what he's using for Pinehurst No. 2.

"The greens here are quick, and so I'm actually going to go back to the claw grip this week in an effort to have a little bit lighter grip pressure and create a softer roll, so that I get some of the hit out of it," Mickelson said. "I was running them way by last week, and by taking my bottom hand off the putter, it eliminates some that hit."

Mickelson said that allows him to roll the ball more softly into the hole.

It's not the first time Mickelson has used the claw grip.

He said he'll go back-and-forth from a conventional grip to the claw, particularly in practice rounds, because the claw creates a longer, more fluid stroke. Two years ago in the British Open, Mickelson used the claw grip to tap in a par putt, and then practiced with it on the teeing ground at the next hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

Mickelson worked with putting coach Dave Stockton on Tuesday morning and decided to switch.

But not for long.

"Ultimately, I'll go back to a regular grip," he said. "But for now, probably the coming weeks, that helps me get the feel and flow back. What I should have done is practice the last few weeks with it and then gone to regular grip this week, but here we are."

Mickelson said it particularly helps on the shorter putts. Those are the ones he has missed in a career filled with six runner-up finishes.

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FUZZY REFLECTS: Fuzzy Zoeller only started thinking about his U.S. Open victory when the phone started ringing.

This is the 30-year anniversary of when Zoeller won his second major — both in a playoff — over Greg Norman in the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Norman rallied on the back nine with a birdie on the 17th, and then a 45-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a 69 to stay tied with Zoeller.

Zoeller was standing in the fairway, thought the putt was for birdie, and jokingly waved his white towel in mock surrender.

The next day, Zoeller rolled in a 70-foot birdie putt on the second hole and was on his way, beating the Shark by eight shots in the 18-hole playoff.

"I'll be honest with you, I hadn't really thought about it until the last couple of days when people have started calling," Zoeller said. "It doesn't seem like it's been 30 years. But it kind of does fly when you're out on the rat race of the tour like we are. We're constantly moving, days flying by, and you kind of lose track of time."

Zoeller says he has never watched a replay of that U.S. Open. Occasionally, friends will call to tell him it's on TV. He doesn't bother.

"What the hell, I was on the receiving end," he said.

Zoeller was 54 when the U.S. Open finally returned to Winged Foot in 2006. It goes back to the New York course in 2020 when he'll be 68. So he could only laugh when asked if he had plenty of time to prepare.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I'd be out there directing traffic in the parking lot."

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THE MATCH: Phil Mickelson is known for his money games on Tuesday at majors, and this time he had a familiar partner (Rickie Fowler) against some new blood: Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

The kids — a combined age of 41, still younger than the 43-year-old Mickelson — built an early lead. Mickelson rallied to square the match, and then Spieth put it away with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. Thomas belted a tee shot down the middle on the 18th and chipped to tap-in range for par. The match was so tense on the 18th that Fowler asked for a ruling after a tee shot into the gallery.

Mickelson and Fowler both left birdie attempts from off the green — a pitch for Mickelson, a putt for Fowler — short of the hole.

The highlight for Thomas? The gallery.

It started small and by the back nine, the crowd lined every hole from tee to green. On the par-3 15th, the bleachers behind the green were full. After they played the hole, only a tiny section at the top remained with people.

"This is the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of," Thomas said. "And it's only Tuesday."

It probably won't be that way Thursday. Mickelson is playing with defending champion Justin Rose and U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick. Spieth is in a pairing of young stars that include Hideki Matsuyama and Fowler.

Thomas, a qualifier, is playing with Craig Barlow and Tom Lewis of England.

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LABELS: Matt Kuchar probably hasn't contended in enough majors to be in the group of "best to have never won a major." He's had two good chances at the Masters.

Even so, he is No. 5 in the world with seven PGA Tour wins, including a World Golf Championship, The Players Championship and a FedEx Cup playoff event. And he's had more top 10s than anyone over the last three years.

Either way, he doesn't mind it.

"If you haven't won a major, you sure want to be a part of that conversation," he said. "But certainly, it's been a goal of mine. It's been a goal of mine since I started playing the game. So it remains there."

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