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Lefty undecided on exemption to play U.S. Open

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Phil Mickelson has a lot of work to do if he is going to be exempt for the U.S. Open in his hometown of San Diego.

But if he falls short, the five-time major champion — who is presently ranked 113th in the world — said Thursday he has not decided whether he will accept a special exemption from the United States Golf Association to play in the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

“I don’t know; I just don’t know the answer to that right now,” Mickelson told ESPN after shooting 2-over-par 73 at the Valspar Championship. “I’m scheduled to go through qualifying the day after the Memorial [Tournament in Ohio].”

Mickelson, 50, has been runner-up at the U.S. Open six times: 1999 to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst; 2002 to Tiger Woods at Bethpage; 2004 to Retief Goosen at Shinnecock Hills; 2006 to Geoff Ogilvy at Winged Foot; 2009 to Lucas Glover at Bethpage; and 2013 to Justin Rose at Merion.

That is the most of any player to never have won the tournament, the lone major keeping Mickelson from completing a career Grand Slam. He has four other top-10s in the tournament.

Lefty has played in 31 U.S. Opens dating to his first as an amateur in 1990 and at one point played 23 in a row. He missed the 2017 U.S. Open due his daughter’s high school graduation and had played in every previous one starting in 1994.

Last year, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Mickelson said he would turn down a special exemption if offered one to the U.S. Open, to be played at Winged Foot — where in 2006 a final-hole double bogey cost him a spot in a playoff.

“I won’t accept it,” he said in February 2020. “So I am either going to get in the field on my own or I’ll have to try to qualify. I’m not going to take a special exemption. They have never been an organization that likes to give out exemptions, special exemptions. I don’t want a special exemption. I think I’ll get in the tournament. If I get in, I deserve to be there. If I don’t, I don’t. I don’t want a sympathy spot. If I’m good enough to make it and qualify, then I need to earn my spot there.”

Due to the pandemic, the USGA scrapped its usual qualifying system last year and went to an all-exempt plan, under which Mickelson made it into the field before missing the cut.

To be fully exempt, Mickelson needs to be among the top 60 by either May 24 or June 7. That likely means at least one top-three finish or two in the top five. He’s in danger of missing the cut at the Valspar Championship and is scheduled to play next week’s Wells Fargo Championship, the PGA Championship and the Memorial prior to the final cutoff.

Short of that, he can go through sectional qualifying, which awards spots to about half the 156-player field at various sites. The qualifying location he has already chosen is played over two courses in Ohio.

Since the U.S. Open is at Torrey Pines — where Mickelson has three times won the PGA Tour event played at the venue — it is possible that he might be more receptive to a USGA invite, although he said it wasn’t part of the decision.

“The venue doesn’t make a difference,” said Mickelson, who tied for 18th at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. “I just don’t know the answer yet.”

The USGA has granted 34 players a total of 52 special exemptions dating to 1966, when it gave its first to Ben Hogan. Jack Nicklaus, a four-time winner of the U.S. Open, was given eight and played his final one in 2000 at age 60. Arnold Palmer was given five, and he played his final U.S. Open in 1994 at age 64. Ernie Els got a special exemption in 2019. The last player who had not won the U.S. Open to receive a special exemption was Nick Price in 2005.

The USGA would typically announce any special exemptions by the middle of next month.

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