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ONCE again, Mickelson hoping to break through

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Nick Price knows what it's like to have the talent to win a major championship, but not be able to pull it off.

He knows what it's like to be Phil Mickelson.

Price came close to winning the British Open in 1982. The near-misses continued at the '85 PGA, the '86 Masters and the '88 British Open before he broke through and won the '92 PGA. He went on to win the British and PGA again in 1994.

``That 'the best player never to win a major' is the worst tag you can get put on you,'' Price said.

Mickelson is among those so labeled. He has 18 PGA Tour victories, including the Buick Invitational in February. But he's 0-for-35 in the majors, most recently at the Masters, where he finished third.

His next chance is this week's U.S. Open, a tournament he led through the first two rounds in 1999 at Pinehurst before finishing as runner-up to Payne Stewart. Tiger Woods won last year and is the odds-on favorite to do it again, which would give him five straight majors.

Mickelson has had 12 top-10 finishes in majors, and admits in some of those tournaments he has simply made too many mistakes to win. The same has happened this year _ he has finished second three times, third four other times.

They're experiences he hopes serve him well beginning Thursday.

``It's very encouraging to me that I've been able to get in contention week in and week out,'' Mickelson said Tuesday. ``And what that does is give me the confidence that heading into this week, it's not hit or miss.

``I know that if I play well, if I play smart and make good decisions and manage my game, I don't need to have anything extraordinary to happen for me to get in contention over the weekend.''

Part of the problem for Mickelson _ and for David Duval and Colin Montgomerie, who join him in the best-never-to-win-a-major club _ is that the field includes Woods.

Woods, just 25, has already won six majors. He is 65 under par during his streak of four in a row and won last year's Open by 15 shots. And when he has found himself in a tussle, he comes up with the big shots that make the difference.

Mickelson hasn't been able to do that. He was in the final group at the Masters this year, within one stroke of the lead with three to play, but bogeyed No. 16 to essentially end his chances.

Sometimes his aggressive play has cost him, and aggressiveness on an Open course can be lethal. But he has no intention of altering his approach this week at Southern Hills.

``To change my style of play would be wrong. It would really be putting me at a disadvantage,'' he said. ``To make a few more intelligent decisions or less risky shots, that I wouldn't necessarily call conservative.''

U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney played a practice round with Mickelson on Tuesday and said he had never seen Mickelson hit the ball so well.

``He made tons of birdies out there and made it look so easy,'' Quinney said. ``He's on the top of his game, it looks like now.''

Whether that is good enough, finally, to win a major remains to be seen.

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