CNN  — 

Athletes often have favorite venues they associate with good memories and good performances. That, however, is certainly not the case with Phil Mickelson and New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club.

The course was the site of his most excruciating defeat when in 2006, needing just a par on the final hole – or a bogey to take it to a playoff – to claim his first U.S. Open title, the American hit the ball off a hospitality tent and made a double-bogey, handing the title to Geoff Ogilvy.

And while the crushing nature of that defeat didn’t hold Mickelson back – he went on to win two more majors – the memories from Winged Foot will no doubt forever stick with him.

While the career grand slam still remains elusive to Mickelson as he returns to Winged Foot for the 120th U.S. Open Championship, which begins on Thursday, one thing that has changed is his body. He took to Twitter to show his transformation since 2006, admitting he looks a little “different” now.

“Last time I was at Winged Foot, I was 36 years old with no accountability for my health … After becoming accountable for my own health, today I return to Winged Foot and let’s just say I look a little ‘different.’”

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Mickelson waits to hit from the rough during the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open Championship.

A tough test

When Mickelson lost that heartbreaker at Winged Foot 14 years ago, the winning score was five over par. The score to make the cut that year was 13 over.

In contrast to the 13 under Gary Woodland shot in June last year to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, many are expecting another over-par score to win the championship in 2020.

The winning score has been over par in all but one U.S. Open at Winged Foot; Jack Nicklaus once described the course as getting “tough on the first tee and never getting any easier.”

And after playing the course before the Tour Championship last week, Jon Rahm – the world No.2 – believes players will once again struggle to make birdies.

“It’s just a difficult course. It’s long. It’s narrow. It’s undulated,” the Spaniard said. “You just need to play really good golf.

“If it gets firm like some of the USGA guys (the tournament organizers) told me they want it to be, I don’t see how any of us shoot under par. Or if we shoot under par, it would be somebody winning by a lot.”

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Mickelson stands on the 18th green after his last putt in the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open Championship.

The man to beat

Since golf returned from the coronavirus hiatus, Dustin Johnson has been in red-hot form.

In 10 PGA Tour events, the 36-year-old has won three and finished second twice – including last month’s PGA Championship – and also won the season-ending FedEx Cup title.

As well as pocketing over $15 million for his FedEx Cup victory at East Lake, Atlanta and returning to world No.1, Johnson was named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year.

Entering the U.S. Open, Johnson is undeniably the man to beat, and he told the media that he was “pleased” with the way his game has been “clicking” in recent competitions.

“Obviously I’ve just put in a lot of good work. I feel like it’s nice to see that the work you’re putting in, to be able to take it on the golf course and to golf tournaments,” he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with (coach) Claude (Harmon III) and my brother working on the putting and everything just seems to be clicking right now. But I’ve definitely had to put in a lot of work to get to where I’m at. And obviously the game’s good and it feels good.”

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Johnson celebrates with the FedEx Cup trophy.

Creating better memories

In 2006, when the U.S. Open was last held at Winged Foot, Tiger Woods was competing just six weeks after the death of his father Earl.

And Woods admits that he wasn’t in the right mindset to play well then, as he missed the cut by three shots. “I was not prepared to play and still dealing with the death of my dad,” he said on Tuesday.

“When I didn’t win the Masters that year, that was really tough to take because that was the last event my dad was ever going to watch me play.

“He passed not too long after that, and quite frankly, when I got ready for this event, I didn’t really put in the time. I didn’t really put in the practice, and consequently missed the cut pretty easily.”

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Woods hangs his head after hitting it into the rough on the 15th hole during the opening round of the 2006 U.S. Open.

Now the 44-year-old is back at Winged Foot hoping to create new, more positive memories as he aims to win his first U.S. Open title since 2008.

Since golf returned from the break, Woods has struggled for fitness and form, playing in just four PGA Tour events, his highest finish coming at the PGA Championship when he tied for 37th.

“This year I really haven’t putted as well as I wanted to,” Woods said, “and the times I did make a few swing mistakes, I missed it in the wrong spots. Consequently, I just didn’t have the right looks at it. I’ve compounded mistakes here and there that ended up not making me able to make pars or a birdie run, and consequently I haven’t put myself in contention to win events.”