The professors at Arizona State should be pleased to learn that only three weeks after graduating, Phil Mickelson has already put his psychology degree to good use. Mickelson, 21, has been the most dominant amateur golfer since Jack Nicklaus began making a name for himself at Ohio State more than 30 years ago. Mickelson's rèsumè includes 16 triumphs in collegiate tournaments, a U.S. Amateur title and a victory in a PGA Tour event. Yet before the start of the 1992 NCAA men's golf championship last week in Albuquerque, Mickelson brainwashed himself into believing he wouldn't be worthy of becoming a check-cashing member of the PGA unless he won his third straight NCAA title. Result: Mickelson blew away the field.
Mickelson could have treated the NCAA tournament as if it were merely the final exam for a course in which he had already clinched an A. Instead, he thought of it as the bar exam. And so, on the eve of the tournament, Mickelson, with a straight face, said, "If I can't shoot the numbers this week, I won't feel as if I'm ready to move on."
Mickelson's mind game with himself achieved the desired result. In joining former Texas Longhorn Ben Crenshaw as the only other three-time NCAA champion, Mickelson set or tied four NCAA tournament scoring records during the four rounds at the University of New Mexico's Championship Course—he finished with a 17-under-par 271—and won by seven strokes over Harry Rudolph of Arizona. (Mickelson's Sun Devils finished second in the team competition to Rudolph's Wildcats, also by seven strokes.)
In NCAA golf there are no caddies or carts. At the end of Saturday's fourth round, after Mickelson had toted his own clubs up a fairway for the last time, he finally seemed content with his collegiate achievements. "I had one goal this week—I wanted to win the tournament," he said. "I succeeded, and that's the way I wanted to leave."
June 14, 1992
That drive for success helps explain Mickelson's reign over amateur golf, but it also brought him to the brink of academic disaster during his final semester. While carrying a backbreaking 18-hour class load, he played six college tournaments as well as six Tour events. Meanwhile, golf-industry executives and sports-management firms, anticipating that he planned to turn pro immediately after the NCAAs, began phoning him incessantly at his apartment in Tempe. Instead of studying the principles of physiological psychology, Mickelson found himself mulling over endorsements, agents and investments—when he wasn't studying a right-to-left break on a green somewhere.
Sports agents, however, don't confer college degrees. At midsemester the folks at Arizona State who do sent Mickelson a wakeup call: Either show up for classes more often and turn in your assignments on time or don't bother ordering a cap and gown. Mickelson got the message. He began referring all the agents to his father, Phil Sr., a retired pilot and businessman, who listened politely to their proposals and typed up copious notes for his son. "Things were getting a little rough for him," says the elder Mickelson.
With his father's help Mickelson settled into a less burdensome routine, although at times it was hard to tell whether he was coming or going. Between classes in mid-February, Mickelson competed in the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, the PGA Tour event he had won in 1991. He drove the 110 miles between Tempe and Tucson four times during the week, starting on Monday evening, when he left Tempe after his last class of the day. Following a Tuesday morning practice round in Tucson, Mickelson drove back to Tempe for a night class and an exam on Wednesday. That night he returned to Tucson and teed off in the first round early Thursday morning. Not surprisingly, he didn't make the cut.
Mickelson claims the business distractions and academic pressures exacted a toll on his game. But a check of his scoring average and his grade point average during his last semester turns up no visible scars. Mickelson carded a respectable 3.0 GPA, including an A in that physiological psychology course. His stroke average rose only slightly above last season's to 70.4, and he finished out of the top 10 in only one of those six collegiate tournaments. Still, Mickelson insists that it was "a stressful time."
After graduating last month, Mickelson breathed a heavy sigh of relief and eagerly turned his attention to the NCAA tournament. In interview after interview he repeated this mantra: "I want to play well because I still have some things to prove.... I still need to work on a lot of things to prepare for the pro tour...." But after opening the NCAAs with seven birdies and an eagle en route to a 63, tying the course record, and following that up with a 65 on Thursday, Mickelson wasn't fooling anyone. "Everybody else is playing for second place," said Arizona coach Rick LaRose on Thursday night.
Now that all the psych-out ploys have ended, Mickelson admits that he's comfortable with his lofty place in amateur and collegiate golf history. And he's no longer afraid to admit that he's eager to get out and test himself against the game's best. He has hired a caddie for his debut as a pro, at a qualifying tournament this week in Memphis for the U.S. Open. He'll choose an agent and sign a few endorsement contracts after taking time to study his father's notes. "Those are major decisions," says Mickelson.
Which perk is he most looking forward to as a card-carrying PGA member? Having someone else carry his clubs, rake his bunkers and tend the flag? Nope, says Mickelson without hesitation. "The paychecks!"