When last year's US Open at Bethpage Black produced a three-way tie for second place behind Lucas Glover, the surprise champion, the organising committee found themselves in a disturbing three-into-two-won't-go situation. Phil Mickelson offered a swift solution to the embarrassing conundrum. "Give the medals to Ricky Barnes and David Duval - I've got enough already," was the message from a despairing but gracious world No 2 as he came to terms with yet another miss in the major championship he and his peers consider the most difficult to win.
Mickelson can never be accused of being a big occasion choker, having won the Masters for the third time - his fourth major triumph - in such emotional fashion earlier this year and having accumulated 46 titles, 38 of them on the PGA Tour during his eight years as a professional. However, he baulks at the suggestion that he will be remembered as much for his five (and counting) US Open near misses as those three Augusta green jackets and a host of other accolades.
Mickelson, who continues to be distracted from his professional duties by the plight of his cancer-stricken wife Amy, turned 40 yesterday. That is an age where "life begins" for men of various vocations, but for top-class sportsmen it is a landmark that tends to signal the beginning of the end. Golfers usually stick around longer than their leading counterparts in other sports - Jack Nicklaus was in his 47th year when he won the last of his record 18 majors at Augusta 24 years ago - but Mickelson appreciates his opportunities to fill that unwanted career void are slowly running out.
"Lefty" finds himself in the unaccustomed position of being named the tournament favourite this morning when he arrives on the 10th tee of the beautiful Pebble Beach course in his home state of California to begin his quest for back-to-back majors. He starts that challenge in the company of Padraig Harrington, the winner of two British Opens and the 2008 US PGA championship, and YE Yang, the Korean who shot from comparative obscurity to global prominence by defeating Tiger Woods in a head-to-head battle for last year's PGA title.
That favourite's tag is normally the unconditional preserve of Woods, but the world No 1 has looked anything but the main man of the golfing scene since seeing his personal life turned into a public free-for-all in the wake of revelations about marital infidelity. Indeed, Tiger's form has been so patchy since he ended his self-imposed exile from the game that the top ranking which he has held for the last 262 weeks and for 604 weeks in all is in danger of being surrendered over the next four days. Mickelson will claim that honour if he lifts the trophy on Sunday evening.
A sixth runner-up position for the tall left-hander will be enough if Woods finishes outside the top four while a third-placed finish for Mickelson will be enough if Tiger finishes outside the top 18. Rankings pressure is also on Mickelson, though, as his No 2 position has come under increasing attack over the last few months by England's Lee Westwood. Westwood, who declared himself Europe's best golfer at the end of last season by notching a Race to Dubai and Dubai World Championship double, has been a bigger "nearly man" than Mickelson when it really matters.
While Mickelson has been consoled for his string of narrow failures by his four big titles, Westwood is yet to win one and has frequently had to present an aggressive rebuttal to the argument that he lacks that crucial finishing touch. The world No 3 went some way towards silencing those critics by profiting from a last-hole collapse by America's Robert Garrigus to capture last week's St Jude Classic in Memphis to secure his first victory on the PGA Tour after eight years of trying.
It could hardly have been a more timely success for Westwood who had squandered opportunities in the Masters and Players Championship, acknowledged as the unofficial fifth major. Not that Westwood lacks confidence, but the battling play-off verdict at the fourth extra hole against Sweden's Robert Karlsson on Sunday will put a spring in his step in advance of what could be a trying first two days at Pebble Beach.
He and Ernie Els, the popular South African - twice a winner in the US this year - have the dubious pleasure of accompanying Woods and the inevitable media circus through the next phase of his rehabilitation. It is a task that Westwood, one of four UK raiders to take the spoils on American soil this term, and the hugely experienced Els - he has won this event twice previously and added the British Open title in 2002 - should both be equal to.
Never before in recent memory can Woods, on the basis of form, fitness and application, be considered to be the weak link in a threeball at a major event. That is a taunt which is likely to bring a growling riposte from a wounded Tiger. firstname.lastname@example.org