For this U.S. Open that he wants to win so badly, Phil Mickelson has everything calibrated down to the last nuance. In hopes of winning his third straight major title, Mickelson has practiced here at Winged Foot a dozen times. His two strategy gurus have helped hone tactics for recovery from the rough in such excruciating detail that rivals marvel at their subtlety. Phil has even invented a new club expressly for this event — a 64-degree wedge that he says has saved him "one to two shots a round" this week. Finally, with a 1-under-par 69 on Saturday, Mickelson moved through the field to a tie for the lead at 212.
Only one factor has been beyond Mickelson's control: the identity of the co-leader of this Open, the man who will be his partner Sunday. There on the first tee will be 6-foot-4, 245-pound Kenneth Ferrie of Ashington, England, a fellow of forbidding temper who not long ago almost came to blows with Ireland's Paul McGinley over Ferrie's charges of gamesmanship.
Though Ferrie bears no malice toward Phil, he often bubbles up with rage at the sport, his equipment or himself. Luckily, there is currently 50 pounds less of him to become emotional. But if things go badly, Ferrie can't promise what fireworks might ensue, even if they aren't directed at Mickleson. Just what Phil needs — to be paired with a grinning, glowering time bomb.
Asked for elaboration on his European temper exploits, Ferrie cheerfully conceded, "You wouldn't believe it if I told you. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Most people have a temper. Some people choose to show it, and others don't. I do, unfortunately. . . . I am how I am, and that's how I am. I keep it in check 90 percent of the time. But I'm not perfect."
But surely, for example, if things go badly for him, Ferrie would not snap six clubs in the last round of the U.S. Open.
"You already know you'll be under control because you almost have to be, don't you?" he was asked.
"You say that," responded Ferrie. "You obviously don't know me."
Two hints about Ferrie may be useful as Phil figures out how to strategize his way around the former 300-pounder. He wears a white belt, last favored by fashion in the disco era. And it has a large "Superman" belt buckle, like the tattoo on Shaq's arm.
"Don't tell Phil," Ferrie said about his buckle. "I don't want him to carry Kryptonite."
What makes Ferrie most fascinating as Mickelson's accomplice or nemesis in the quest for history is that, under normal circumstances, when he isn't tormented by golf, Ferrie is delightful, at least if you don't take his spiked hair as a veiled threat.
Asked to compare his preparations for this event with Mickelson's, Ferrie said: "Obviously, I'm in a slightly different boat than Phil. My extensive plan started on Monday, and I had my trusty caddie with me. That was about it."
As for the issue of equipment, there should be little room for discussion on Father's Day. Mickelson carries four wedges here and considered carrying two drivers. Every club in his bag would have a biography if it could speak.
Ferrie uses what are called "game improvement irons."
"They are billed as being clubs that are not for the better player. Is that true?" grilled a reporter.
"I guess so, yeah," Ferrie said, not quite adding, "What's it to you, buddy."
"Why did you pick those?" came the brave riposte.
"I find the game quite hard to start with," Ferrie said, dryly. "If I'm going to stand there with 230 yards over water on the 18th hole to win a tournament, I want the biggest head possible. No other reason. . . . I use a 'game-improvement' driver, too, and I'm pretty happy with that also."
So there, Mr. Four Wedges.
"I'm sure a lot of you are very surprised I'm here," Ferrie said. "Obviously, Phil is going to be a huge favorite. Nobody is really going to give me a chance of winning. [But] I'm a capable player. I've won twice in Europe. I'm not coming here as a local guy in England who happened to get lucky and qualify. I finished 11th on the European Order of Merit last year. . . . There were a lot of decent players behind me. A lot of people are shocked, but everybody has to start somewhere."
Aside from Ferrie and Geoff Ogilvy, nobody else is closer than three shots behind Mickelson's 212 total. However, if something should put him off his game — the Winged Foot rough, the ever-slicker greens, the ludicrous pin placements, the false fronts to greens or even perhaps a prickly pyrotechnic partner — there is high-quality competition lurking at 215 (Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie) and 216 (Jim Furyk, Mike Weir and Padraig Harrington).
On the final nine holes Saturday, Mickelson suddenly seemed to cure the quirks in his balky swing and played beautifully, hitting the last eight greens in regulation. For the second straight day, he sank a clutch six-foot par putt on the 18th hole. In every way, he looks like the logical and even the rightful winner of this event. After his round, he was a model of modesty, maturity and focus.
However, the U.S. Open is famous not only for diabolical courses but for maliciously unpredictable results. In just the last 20 Opens, Tom Watson finished runner-up to Scott Simpson, Payne Stewart to Lee Janzen, Greg Norman to Corey Pavin, Davis Love III to Steve Jones and, last year, Tiger Woods to obscure Michael Campbell. Mickelson has been runner-up three times.
The USGA wants to identify the best golfer on earth. But, almost as often as not, its unholy setups, which can shred the nerves of the proper winner if he hiccups, merely select fine but less than magnificent champions such as Furyk or Andy North.
On such tense Sundays, your playing partner can matter, too. Ferrie means no harm. But he's an "I am who I am" kind of guy. How will a player who is the diametric opposite of Mickleson in every way synch with the new blissfully composed Phil, who credited playing partner Fred Couples after winning the Masters?
"If I'm struggling, you can see it," Ferrie said. "It would be a great attitude to have, if you've just made two double bogeys, to say, 'Oh, dear me, that's too bad.' That's not me."
For Ferrie, such moments of nightmarish embarrassment will almost certainly arrive Sunday as they have for so many little-known golfers who had to sleep on an Open lead. The question is: How will he react? And how will Mickelson react to that?
If Phil only uses his new wedge on rough and sand, then he may keep an appointment with history. If he starts to waggle the weapon while glancing at Ferrie's skull, that won't help his quest. Seldom have two such unlikely golfing fates been so entwined.