There are few things more dangerous in golf than being labeled
as someone who has it all. So when even a short list of Phil
Mickelson's attributes are counted--the seven PGA Tour victories,
the U.S. Amateur title, the three NCAA championships, the
classic rhythm, the magical short game, the syrupy putting
stroke, the coolness under pressure, the telegenic looks--it's
easy to worry.
Even after the hype-proof start to his 1996 season--two
victories, at Tucson and Phoenix, that nearly became three in a
row when he finished second to Davis Love III on Sunday at the
Buick Invitational in San Diego, Mickelson's hometown--there is
concern because there are simply no sure things in golf.
Presenting someone as such is tempting fate. Ask Bobby Clampett.
Ask Ben Crenshaw. Ask Jerry Pate.
Yet Mickelson possesses the one quality that might allow him to
survive the weight of his growing legend--a diamond-hard core
that is concerned only with winning and all that goes into it.
It is an ethic his older peers respect, proved by the fact that
they find the otherwise callow 25-year-old lefthander who keeps
beating them likable rather than annoying.
Paul Azinger gets to the essence of Mickelson by recounting a
small moment during the first round of the Diners Club Matches
in December, when he teamed with Mickelson against Payne Stewart
and Lee Janzen. It might have been a made-for-TV event at the
end of a long season, but the pride factor among the four stars
had created a high degree of tension. With his team 2 down on
the 15th hole, Mickelson holed a sand shot for a winning birdie.
He then birdied the 16th to even the match, and hit his tee shot
stiff on the par-3 17th.
"Going up to the green, we are both walking together, but we
aren't even looking at each other because it was so intense,"
recalls Azinger. "Without looking up, he says to me in that kid
voice of his, 'You know, this is really, really good. I love
this so much. I just love this.' I didn't answer, and he didn't
say anything else. It was kind of eerie." Mickelson made his
putt and birdied 18 to win the match 2 up. "What he said, when
he said it, and the way he said it, that's not something you can
fake," Azinger says of Mickelson's Pattonesque pronouncement.
"That's the feeling all of us would like to have, but probably
very few do. That's the feeling of a champion. I know Phil, and
that's exactly who he is."
That sentiment is the reason Mickelson's sizzling start has
caused so much anticipation. Burning up the West Coast is not a
rare occurrence. Peter Jacobsen won two straight events early
last year, while Steve Jones did the same in 1989. Each time it
happens, projections of a monster year are tempered by more
With Mickelson there is a belief that something big, something
out of the ordinary, is taking shape. He is the first to sweep
the Arizona events since Johnny Miller in 1974 and '75, and
though Mickelson's wins were not the awe-inspiring blowouts
perpetrated by Miller, they carried their own authority. He
ended a scratchy final nine at Tucson with a dramatic chip-in on
the 72nd, while at Phoenix--one of the most exciting Tour events
in recent years--he birdied the third extra hole to defeat Justin
Leonard. Both victories were achieved through tenacity more than
technical brilliance, which inspired comparisons of Mickelson
with Corey Pavin as the toughest American golfer.
A player who has been considered in such terms, Curtis Strange,
is an unabashed fan. "When you think of Phil, you think of a guy
who is going to win a lot of tournaments," says Strange. "What
Phil has got is a sixth sense, a touch, an instinct, a feel, a
way to win."
"I used to think of Phil as having this pretty game, sort of
like Crenshaw, with the same easy demeanor," says Miller. "But
what Phil is showing is that maybe after so many candidates, he
might really be the guy with the heart of Nicklaus. When it gets
down to winning, he does it."
This is a different tune than the one sung about Mickelson as
late as last season. Yes, he had five victories sooner than
anyone since Nicklaus, and the pedigree. But after all the
buildup, there was a sense of letdown. Along with the turned-up
collar and five-year endorsement deals, there was the long,
loose swing, and a disturbing tendency to miss cuts and even
lose interest. He has never finished better than 15th on the
money list, and that was in 1994, when he missed three months
after breaking his left leg and right ankle in a skiing accident
in March. Last year most of his peers said that the truly great
young player was Ernie Els, 26. They weren't sure whether
Mickelson's smile concealed the heart of a killer or a coaster.
The doubters nodded when Mickelson, after reaching the 68th hole
of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills only a stroke out of the
lead, double-bogeyed the 70th hole and finished in a tie for
fourth, seemingly not ready for prime time. U.S. Ryder Cup
captain Lanny Wadkins appeared to be among the disbelievers,
holding Mickelson out of two of the five sessions at Oak Hill.
But Mickelson answered by winning all three of the matches he
did get into, including the final singles of the competition,
when he came from 3 down after six holes to defeat Per-Ulrik
Johannson 2 and 1. If his team had garnered half a point more,
he would have been the hero.
Although Mickelson stops short of saying so, opting for the
diplomatic assessment that he "learned a lot about how to handle
pressure on and off the course" from the Ryder Cup, it is clear
that he noticed that he handled it as well as anyone and better
than most. It energized him for the 1996 season, as did
consulting with his coach of more than a decade, Dean Reinmuth.
Reinmuth bluntly told Mickelson he had some holes that needed
plugging. Most conspicuous was loose play at the beginning of
tournaments that was causing him to either miss cuts or put
himself too far back to contend. Another problem was an alarming
tendency to run long birdie putts five feet past the hole, which
was wearing down even Mickelson's nerves. "I told him, 'There
are a lot of guys beating you who shouldn't be beating you,'"
says Reinmuth. "I told him that by being sloppy, he was costing
himself shots and the opportunity to use his greatest asset,
which is the ability to raise his game when he gets in the hunt
Competitiveness and talent alone will not make him a consistent
winner. Mickelson in 1996 is more focused and efficient while
practicing. He has been a fixture on the range, regularly
hitting as many as 300 balls after his rounds, and usually in an
isolated environment that includes very little chitchat.
Obviously, the effort has paid off. After a rusty start at the
Mercedes Championships, where he finished 28th out of 30
players, Mickelson has followed a blueprint of keeping in touch
the first two days before turning explosive on the weekend. At
San Diego, he putted poorly in an opening 68 and hit the ball
erratically during a second-round 70. He made the 36-hole cut by
just two strokes, but his 66-67 finish was equaled only by
Love's (69-64). "I'm seeing results, and that just makes me want
to work more," says Mickelson.
The only thing he does not have to work on is his
competitiveness, which is at least partly inherited. Phil
Mickelson Sr., an eight-handicap golfer, was a gymnast and skier
in college, and later a Navy flight instructor before settling
into a career as a commercial pilot. As a child, Phil Jr., a
natural righthander, imitated his father's swing while facing
him. Phil Sr. decided not to tamper with his mirror image,
thereby producing that rarest of golfers, the lefthander. Mary
Mickelson, Phil's mother, is an effervescent woman who channels
her energy into an over-50 women's basketball team named the Hot
Flashes. Their first son--the Mickelsons have an older daughter
and a younger son--thrives on challenge, whether it be skiing,
which Mickelson this week was expecting to try again for the
first time since his accident, working toward his pilot's
license or hitting trick shots for money.
In San Diego, Mickelson and fiancee Amy McBride were guests in
his family's home. It meant Phil Jr. could revisit the backyard
practice area where he learned--by day and by night--to be
inventive with his wedges and deadly with his putter. It's where
he would show his discoveries to his father, a ritual that Phil
Sr. thinks is the root of his son's affinity for the big moment.
"Phil loves pressure because it's the best opportunity to
demonstrate a talent he has tremendous confidence in," he says.
Last week the backyard was also where he went one-on-one with
Mary, whose intensity translated into several scores over her
6'2" son. Then again, Phil felt no compunction about stuffing
several of his mother's spin moves.
Pressed on the issue of his growing reputation among fellow pros
as someone who can handle the heat, Mickelson, who is leery of
being seen as brash, cannot help but reveal his confidence. "I
love and want to be in the most pressure-packed situations," he
says. "I wanted to be in the last group at the Ryder Cup, and I
wanted it to come down to my match. I thought that even though
that would have been unbelievably stressful, it would have been
the most enjoyable experience in the game of golf, whereas I
believe other people would not have wanted to be in that
That's a welcome attitude in today's golf world. It's not what
we heard from Love or Fred Couples when they were hot in 1992,
or even from a sizzling Nick Price in 1993 and 1994. There is a
prevalent theory that any player who gets to the top will be
pulled, by the heavy demands, into a sharp fall and will be to
some degree relieved when the decline occurs. It's an attitude
to which Mickelson cannot relate. "I know what I'm experiencing
is nothing like what Norman and Price get," he says, "but I
can't imagine not wanting to play well. No, I really want it."
To Miller, who characterizes the modern Tour as a flock of
thoroughbred sheep--well-bred, but unwilling to leave the
pack--Mickelson sounds like the wolf the game needs. "Along with
everything else, he's very hungry, and that's the real X
factor," Miller says.
In order to satisfy that hunger, Mickelson will have to learn to
say no, something that is against his nature. "That makes me
feel like I'm being rude," he says. "But, for example, on
Wednesday I did a radio show and two TV deals, and didn't have
enough daylight to practice my putting, which needed some work.
I went out the first day and putted atrociously. I will not let
that happen again."
Although Mickelson has never won east of the Rockies, Azinger,
for one, believes he has jumped to a plateau that will allow him
to win seven or eight times this year. And after winning
$603,540 in only four starts, Mickelson could also surpass the
record $1,654,959 that Greg Norman earned last season. "I know
how Phil thinks," says Azinger. "He thrives in the arena."
Yet despite giving every indication that he would, Mickelson did
not thrive on Sunday in San Diego. By making six birdies in a
10-hole stretch, Mickelson surged into a one-shot lead. Then his
putter got squirrely and his legend got stood on its head.
"I gave away three strokes on the last three holes," said a
stunned Mickelson, who lost a chance to be the first player to
win three straight starts since Price did it in 1993. "I'm
disappointed, but not deflated. It's all a motivator. I had a
chance to get in the hunt, and whenever that happens, I can't
complain. Not winning just tells me I've got more work to do."
In other words, Sunday remains his favorite day. And as long as
that's true--no matter how often he's accused of having it all--we
won't have to worry about Phil Mickelson.