Although they have played dozens of rounds together and there is
always some spare change riding on the outcome, Gary McCord
laments the fact that he has never won a lousy dime off his
friend and neighbor Phil Mickelson. Last fall they were engaged
in a friendly wager at the Geronimo Course at Desert Mountain in
Carefree, Ariz., when the round reached its customary climactic
moment. ``Lefty has an 18-footer for a birdie to win on 17, and
I've pressed him a hundred different ways,'' McCord remembers.
``So I stand right behind him, directly in his line, and I start
working the change in my pocket. Then, wouldn't you know it, I
develop this nasty cough. Finally he peeks back at me and says,
`Hey, Gary.' I figure he's caught me, so I start to move, but he
says, `Why don't you stand right behind the hole so you can have
a nice view of this one dropping?' Sure enough, he drills it
smack in the middle. It was like getting my wisdom teeth
extracted. After that putt he got to write me off as a dependent
on his tax return.''
The moral? Don't mess with old man Mickelson. In his two
previous visits to Augusta National, the course teased Mickelson
unmercifully. He finished no higher than 34th. But this year, at
the advanced age of 24, he almost got even, shooting a 66 on
Thursday and cruising to within one stroke of the lead after
three rounds before fading to finish tied for seventh. If only
McCord could have sneaked in on Sunday to press Lefty on the 6th
and 7th holes, on which Mickelson combined for seven putts,
Mickelson might have won his first major championship.
Mickelson's strong showing in Augusta might halt, at least
temporarily, the whispers that he'll never live up to his
enormous hype. Apart from his top-10 finishes in the '93 and '94
PGA Championships, Mickelson has a woeful professional record in
majors. He missed the cut in the '92 U.S. Open, did not qualify
in '93 and finished 47th last year. In the British Open he
failed to qualify in '92, skipped qualifying in 1993 and missed
the cut in '94, which lends credence to the theory that the
reason he has won only in the western U.S. is that he can't play
Mickelson will remember the '95 Masters not only for the fact
that he finally got into contention at Augusta, but also because
it was the first time he played there without being lauded as
the sport's young phenom by everybody, including himself. He was
no longer the latest in a huge and mostly forgotten platoon of
golfers ordained as the next Nicklaus. All week long Mickelson
relaxed while a tornado of hype swirled around Tiger Woods.
``The more I've played, the more I've realized that the only
thing that speaks are what scores are shot,'' Mickelson said
Sunday. ``That's what tells other people about how good you are.
In the past if I ever said things that made me sound cocky, I
didn't mean to. And I've tried to knock that off. I really don't
worry about who is labeled the best young player.''
``Arnold [Palmer] was there when I came onto the scene, and
every year since there's always a new kid arriving,'' Nicklaus
says. ``Phil knows he has to play his own game. You can't push
time, and you can never look over your shoulder.''
Dean Reinmuth, who has coached Mickelson for a decade, will tell
you that his prize pupil has never been obsessed by his
competition, preferring to challenge himself. Reinmuth recalls
the first time he saw Mickelson, when Phil was a 14-year-old
participating in a junior golf school at Pinehurst. Mickelson
was involved in a casual closest-to-the-pin contest from a
greenside bunker. Davis Love Jr., who was running the clinic,
dropped a ball for Mickelson, and when it plugged in the sand
like a poached egg, Love reached down to improve the lie.
``Don't bother,'' Mickelson said. ``I can get it close from
there.'' He blasted it stiff.
After winning three NCAA tournaments and a PGA event while at
Arizona State, Mickelson has added three more PGA victories
since he joined the Tour in '92. The only other player to win
four Tour events as early as age 24 was Nicklaus. ``Phil's blown
his kid image with all his victories,'' Paul Azinger says. ``As
far as I'm concerned, he's a wily veteran.''
Says Mark O'Meara, ``Phil has so much talent and so much
experience already, you sometimes forget his age. When I was 24,
I was killing myself just to win once.''
For all his success, including a win at the Northern Telecom
Open in Tucson early this year, Mickelson struggled in preparing
for the Masters. He shot 73 or higher in nine of his last 18
rounds before the tournament and missed the cut four out of six
times coming into Augusta.
``Golf can humble you, but Phil has shown that he can deal with
the success and the slumps,'' Peter Jacobsen says. ``Phil's
always been a real friendly kid, always quiet, a little shy.
Sometimes when you come in with a big reputation, it's tough to
be one of the guys, but he's assimilated quite well. It's not
like he came out of college with a $60 million contract like Big
Dog Robinson and thinks he's descended from on high.''
Mickelson has always appeared overly cute on the course,
although he is cutting down on his vapid Miss America
smile-and-wave routine, which had become so habitual he could
sometimes be caught performing it even when there was no gallery
around. ``When I first saw Lefty with that silly grin and that
little wave, it looked kind of fake to me, like he was
programmed since he was eight years old,'' McCord says. ``But,
you know, that's no act, that's just Lefty. He's like a
precocious little 10-year-old. Don't turn your back on him. He's
a Dennis the Menace who can hit the high flier.''
Mickelson has displayed an air of mischief ever since he bailed
from home at age three for a life on the road, carrying his
favorite stuffed dog, Flopsie, his sawed-off driver and an empty
suitcase that was twice his size. He traveled only a few blocks
before a neighbor spotted him and steered him back home. A few
years later Mickelson suffered the first of his many
transportation misadventures. He rode his new 10-speed bike to
the top of a hill near his house and, shunning the brakes, sped
down until he lost not only control but also his two front teeth.
As an adult Mickelson has continued to suffer such mishaps. A
few years ago he rolled his BMW while trying to execute a pass
on a hairpin turn. In March '94 he encountered his worst enemy
to date, a sizable tree that he struck while skiing at the
Arizona Snow Bowl. Mickelson suffered a fractured left leg and
right ankle, which forced him to miss three months of Tour play
and last year's Masters. He still carries a metal rod in his
left femur as a souvenir. ``Phil has always been fascinated with
speed and pushing himself to the limit,'' says his sister, Tina.
``He never really thinks that excessive speed sometimes ends
with a crash.''
Despite all the carnage in his past, these days Mickelson is
focusing on obtaining a pilot's license. ``I guess you could say
I'm aggressive at things I'm confident doing,'' Mickelson says.
``I've always been that way. But the ski accident has definitely
put my skydiving plans on hold.''
``He's just getting off crutches from skiing, and then he calls
and tells me he's learning how to fly,'' McCord remembers. ``Are
you kidding? I'd go up in a plane with Stevie Wonder before I'd
go up with him.''
If McCord needed further discouragement, he surely got it from a
flight that Mickelson recently took with his girlfriend, Amy
McBride. Mickelson purposely stalled the engine, and the nose
started to drop. Then he gave the plane a couple of extra twists
on the way down. When he peeked over at Amy she was a little
peaked. ``It really wasn't that big of a deal,'' Mickelson says
with a devilish grin, ``but she hasn't flown with me since, so
maybe I shouldn't have done it.''
In many ways Mickelson's goofy manner has come to be refreshing.
After Saturday's round he was asked about his jacket size, and
he admitted he wasn't exactly sure. ``I'm a 42 regular, I
think,'' said Mickelson.
As it turned out, measurements for a green jacket were not
necessary this year. Mickelson struggled early on Sunday with
his putter and then had some more tree trouble. After his drive
on 10 found the woods, leading to a bogey, he fell out of
``I had a really good shot at winning, and like all the guys in
my position, I'll leave feeling dejected,'' Mickelson said.
``But it's a whole lot better than last year, when I was
watching the tournament with two broken legs.''
The closer Mickelson comes to winning, the more threatening he
becomes the next time around. He is not one to quit. This
February he even returned to the Arizona Snow Bowl to exorcise
the demons of the slopes. When he and Amy reached the site of
his accident, they bowed and paid homage to the tree and then
laughed as they glided down to the bottom of the hill. ``I had
to go back so my last memory of skiing wouldn't be lying in the
snow all messed up,'' Mickelson says. ``The more afraid I get of
something, the more I want to conquer it. I guess that's why I
want to win the Masters someday. But when? . . .''
Don't press him.