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Major Swing Change

Dec. 25, 2006
Dec. 25, 2006

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Dec. 25, 2006

The Year in Sports 2006
The Best of 2006
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Major Swing Change

After Phil Mickelson reverted to his old ways on the 72nd hole at the U.S. Open, a heavyhearted Tiger Woods took charge of the season

To call the U.S.Open the best tournament of 2006 is accurate but not complete. It was also thebest train wreck, the best a-star-is-born moment and, more than anything, oneof the best examples of how thrilling major-championship golf can be,especially when the body count starts to rise during a pressure-packed finalround. ¶ It's hard to remember now, given his post-Open stupor, but PhilMickelson roared into Winged Foot as the biggest thing in golf. He had won twoconsecutive majors, and 69 holes into the Open he looked as if he would joinBen Hogan and Tiger Woods to become only the third player to win threeconsecutive majors in which he played. Though his swing deserted him early inthe final round, Mickelson forged a two-stroke lead with three holes to play,thanks to magnificent work on and around the greens.

This is an article from the Dec. 25, 2006 issue Original Layout

As Phil theThrill was performing his high-wire act, the tension was building ahead of him.Jim Furyk, the game's preeminent Steady Eddie, missed a short putt on the 72ndhole to finish six over. The foreboding bogey was part of a wild 11-minute runduring which Colin Montgomerie made a 40-footer at the 17th, Mickelson bogeyed16, and Geoff Ogilvy rattled in a chip for par on 17. The bang-bang-bang-bangsequence left Mickelson and Monty tied for the lead at four over, Ogilvy oneback and Johnny Miller almost hyperventilating in the NBC tower.

All threecontenders would meet their fate on the par-4 18th, a dogleg left with ananorexic fairway and a severely elevated green. After a perfect drive,Montgomerie, the star-crossed Scot, needed only to hit a seven-iron andtwo-putt, and a major title could be his at last. A career distilled into oneswing, and Monty, 43, shrank from the enormity of the opportunity, uncorking ahalf-chunk short and right of the green. He was done, though it took a so-sochip and three agonizing putts to make it official.

Ogilvy, the lankyAustralian, had been quietly hanging around. Laying two short of the 18th greenafter his near-perfect approach spun off the putting surface, he faced his owndo-or-die shot. In a showing of supreme talent and touch and confidence, heresponded with a perfect pitch that stopped six feet from the hole. When Ogilvyburied the putt, Mickelson needed a par at the last to win his first nationalchampionship.

It's a fundebate: Which of Mickelson's ensuing six shots was the most egregious? Afterslicing his drive off the roof of a corporate tent, he had a clean lie in theleft rough, 201 yards from the hole with a towering elm 50 yards in front ofhim. To fade a three-iron onto the green would have been a heroic effort, butgetting his ball in position to save par was not that tough a play. Mickelson'sshot was wide left immediately off the club face, striking the tree squarely onthe trunk. The shocking thwack seemed to echo forever, and the ball rolled backat Mickelson, mockingly. He needed four more blows to complete his doublebogey. Ogilvy, 29, won the championship while sucking down a yellow sportsdrink in the clubhouse.

Mickelson's follywas the moment on which the season flipped. Woods had been the story early inOpen week, as he returned to competition after taking nine weeks off to be withand then grieve for his father, Earl, who died of cancer a month and a halfbefore the Open. Still reeling, Woods missed the cut--his first in a majorsince he turned pro--and as he left town many wondered if he would be a factorfor the rest of the year.

Seeminglyrecharged by his chief rival's undoing, Woods regrouped in time for the BritishOpen, played five weeks later, where he carved up the quirky links at Hoylakewith breathtaking precision. Woods's win begat the best moment of the year, atearful hug with his caddie on the final green, when for an instant the world'smost famous athlete was just a boy who missed his pop.

So, to recap:Tiger wins, Phil loses and both create indelible memories in theirheartache.

Predictions 2007

Lorena Ochoa (left) will win more times on the LPGA tour than Tiger Woods doeson the PGA Tour. But Woods will take two majors (Masters, U.S. Open) to Ochoa'sone (Kraft Nabisco).

The FedEx Cup will absolutely, positively be a dud.The PGA Tour's new four-event finish is supposed to have the drama of asudden-death playoff, but a confounding points system and bloated fields willdo little to gain fan interest.

Ryan Moore (right) will emerge as the best U.S. playerunder 30. Unfortunately, there isn't much competition for the honor, whichforeshadows more drubbings in the Ryder Cup.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger (left) will createan international incident with his mouth. We can't wait.

The Golf Channel will be a pleasant surprise. Still,not enough viewers will tune in to the exclusive (and obscure) cable home ofthe PGA Tour to broaden the Tour's popularity. Leaving ESPN while Tiger is inhis prime will doom golf to boutique-sport status.

The Best...

Colombian hip action
Sorry, Shakira, this goes to Camilo Villegas (right), the long-hitting,tight-pants-wearing heartthrob who was one of the best among a strong crop offirst-year foreigners on the PGA Tour.

Hyperbole ever
In his closing remarks at the Ryder Cup, victorious European captain IanWoosnam proclaimed, "This has been the greatest week in history."

Reasons to love the LPGA (besides NatalieGulbis)
The shots of the year were Karrie Webb's hole-out for eagle on the 72nd hole atthe Kraft Nabisco to get into a playoff (which she won) and Se Ri Pak's hybridiron to within inches to beat Webb in a playoff at the LPGA Championship.

Rejoinder
Before his first-round matchup with Tiger Woods at the World Match Play,Stephen Ames said he felt he could win, "especially where he's hitting theball." Tiger responded with birdies on the first six holes and wins on thefirst nine, humiliating Ames by a record score of 9 and 8. Asked afterward whathe thought of Ames's comments, Woods (right) said simply, "Nine and8."

Recovery
Leading by a stroke on the 72nd hole at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans,Chris Couch jacked his approach over the green, duffed a bunker shot, thenholed a chip for his first PGA Tour victory.

Bit of hypocrisy
The PGA Tour brass rebuked John Daly for his raunchy autobiography while it wasbeing sold at Tour shops in airports around the country.

Snapshot of a cautionary tale
At the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic, Michelle Wie had to be strapped to astretcher and loaded into an ambulance, a victim of heat exhaustion and,perhaps, crushing expectations.

Reason not to tinker with a funky swing
Jim Furyk (left) rode his loopy action to $7.2 million and a No. 2 worldranking.

Illustration of the Champions tour's struggles
Charisma-free grinders Jay Haas and Loren Roberts are the two biggest names onthe circuit.

Way not to make a good first impression Numerous mediaoutlets boycotted the LPGA's second event of the season after new commissionerCarolyn Bivens implemented copyright rules, the first in a series ofcontroversies sparked by her hardball tactics.

News for couch potatoes
CBS replaced cliché-monger Lanny Wadkins in the tower with witty and wise NickFaldo (right).

Way to get closer to a major title
Sergio García took Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan-Leigh, to the Ryder Cup ashis date.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICH NOTAGAIN
Mickelson came up short in his bid for a third straight major title when hedouble-bogeyed the last hole at Winged Foot.
ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMS; DARREN CARROLLILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMSSIX PHOTOSDARREN CARROLL; DAVID WALBERG (AZINGER, VILLEGAS); JOHN BIEVER (WOODS); FRED VUICH (FURYK); TODD BIGELOW/AURORA (FALDO)