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For injured Mickelson, wrist watch is on

OAKMONT, Pa. -- Phil Mickelson didn't come across as the second-best player in the world. No, he sounded more like some duffer who had dashed home from work, tossed the clubs and shoes into the trunk and hooked up with his buddies in the weekly company golf league.

"I had a chance to play nine holes today," Mickelson announced to a packed media room Tuesday at Oakmont Country Club, site of this week's 107th U.S. Open. "It was the first time in a while, and it was nice to get out on the course and get to hit some shots."

Mickelson gave no details, no recitation of his birdies and bogeys. All he provided was the small sense of relief and encouragement at being able to play nine holes on one of the sport's most famous courses, as he continues his rushed recovery from an injured left wrist.

Two days before the start of the Open, Lefty's left wrist had become the event's most analyzed piece of equipment. Mickelson hasn't finished a competitive round since winning the Players Championship a month ago today.

In late May, during a practice session at Oakmont, Mickelson injured his wrist -- presumably while hitting out of the high rough. He withdrew from the Memorial the following week and has been working with doctors and trainers to alleviate the inflammation in the wrist ever since.

Mickelson arrived in the interview room, just after Tiger Woods, wearing a big black brace on his lower left arm. A low murmur went up in the room, as veteran golf writers registered their collective chagrin at Mickelson's compromised condition.

But Mickelson was as upbeat and cheery as could be expected. He said the wrist had been improving by the day. He said rest, rehabilitation, light therapy and a cortisone shot had lessened the inflammation. Mickelson admitted he would not be playing if this weren't a major. But he was mildly optimistic and looking forward to playing.

"I'll do the same [today], hit balls for a half-hour and play nine holes," Mickelson said. "As the week goes, I'll probably do more and more. I should be able to play, no problem. I probably won't be pain-free like I had hoped, but it should be manageable as long as I don't aggravate it -- or hit it in the rough."

The media got a chuckle out of that one. Mickelson has been a frequent visitor to the rough in majors over the years. In last year's U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he hit only two of 14 fairways in the final round. The last of his wayward tee shots hit the top of a hospitality tent and led to his fatal double bogey, costing Mickelson a first Open title and third consecutive major.

At least the wrist injury allowed Mickelson to discuss something besides last year's Open disaster, in which he compounded his bad tee shot on the 72nd hole by trying to hit his second over the trees. It was a stunning display of hubris. Even Mickelson conceded as much when he blurted out, "I'm such an idiot!"

Mickelson's wife, Amy, said Phil was devastated after last year's Open. He struggled in the British Open and PGA Championship and was 0-4-1 at the Ryder Cup. It's been chic to speculate on when he finally got over Winged Foot. But Mickelson said he still hasn't put it behind him.

"I don't ever want to put it totally behind me," Mickelson said. "I still want to look back on it and recall what happened because I used that analysis to design a game plan to start driving the ball better.

"If I just forget about it, I'm not taking the opportunity to take advantage of some weaknesses and hopefully turn them into strengths."

Mickelson did learn from last year's Open. After another late collapse cost him the Nissan Open in February, he enlisted the help of noted swing coach Butch Harmon -- Woods' former mentor -- and turned away from his longtime coach.

The change was swift and dramatic. Harmon advocated a tighter, shorter backswing, and Mickelson became straighter off the tee. He finished third at the Byron Nelson and Wachovia, and won the Players. Then Mickelson began working vigorously for the Open -- too vigorously, perhaps.

"I think he overprepared," said golf analyst Johnny Miller, who won the Open at Oakmont in 1973 with a closing 63. "He probably hit so many chip shots out of that rough -- that would create inflammation in anybody. His diligence in hitting for an hour around every green -- I think he just overdid it."

Before the injury, Miller said Mickelson might win going away. But now, it's less a question of whether Mickelson will win as whether he'll even finish.

"Sure, I have concerns," Mickelson said. "This certainly isn't the way I wanted to be coming into the tournament. I haven't been physically able to practice as hard as I would like. I'm not sure where my physical game is going to be as far as ball-striking. But I'm going to do the best I can."

It's been said that Oakmont has all the charm of a sock to the head. Hit in the rough and it'll do a number on your wrist, even a healthy one. If you asked the pros to name the last place they'd want to play while recovering from a wrist injury, most would chant "Oakmont!"

So don't expect a lot from Mickelson this week. Dream if you like. It would be one of the great stories if he finds a way to win, one year after his collapse. If he hits fairways and doesn't reinjure the wrist, who knows? He has the short game, and for once, he won't have the pressure of high expectations.

Mickelson is often his own worst enemy. The injury might allow him to play conservatively, to resist the inner demons that coax him into trying the impossible shot when the safe one will do. Maybe he has a major shock in store for us, one that doesn't involve hitting his drive off a hospitality tent.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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