How many times has Tiger Woods heard it? The next great one,
that's what they call him. How many times has he suffered the
comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, the last great one? Way too many.
But you know what? Woods hasn't heard it as often as Phil
Mickelson. Yes, Woods has great promise, but Mickelson, 26, has
already traveled beyond mere expectations.
Mickelson's not the next Nicklaus--no one is, nor should anyone
be burdened with that kind of label--which is what made
Mickelson's fasten-your-seat-belt victory in the Bay Hill
Invitational so delicious, so unexpected, so perfect. He won
Arnold Palmer's tournament on Palmer's home course, the Bay Hill
Club in Orlando, with a genuine, nine-gauge Arnold Palmer charge
on the back nine on Sunday.
Mickelson did all this on the week that Palmer returned to
competition after taking two months off to recover from prostate
cancer surgery. After Arnie had slipped the blue champion's
jacket around Mickelson's shoulders, Mickelson confessed, "I got
up this morning and thought, What would Mr. Palmer do on a day
like this? I thought of him holding that putter up, giving it
the old Arnie charge, and how cool it would be if I did that. I
tried to emulate the master."
Then Mickelson recounted how something Palmer had revealed to
him, like Yoda to Luke, during a practice round at the Masters,
helped him win at Bay Hill. Mickelson recalled walking up the
18th fairway at Augusta National when Palmer stopped, pointed
and said, "There. Right there. That's where it happened."
"What happened?" Mickelson asked.
"That's where, in 1961, a friend waved me over and congratulated
me on winning consecutive Masters. I had the audacity to shake
his hand and say thank you. I proceeded to knock it in the
bunker, make double bogey and lose to Gary Player by a shot."
On Sunday, as he waited on the 17th tee with a two-shot lead
over Stuart Appleby and two dangerous holes ahead, Mickelson
reflected on Palmer's lesson: Stay focused; the tournament's not
over yet. Then he executed a couple of smart shots--a four-iron
at the par-3 17th, where Fuzzy Zoeller lost the tournament in
1994 by knocking a ball off a fan's head and into the water, and
a pin-high approach with a six-iron at the mean 18th--to par in
and win by three with a 16-under-par 272.
But if the finish was a lesson in self-control, the charge that
set it up was positively Palmeresque. When Mickelson reached the
11th tee, he had made six straight pars and was three strokes
behind Appleby, a revived Payne Stewart and Nike tour grad Omar
Uresti. Then Mickelson went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, par,
birdie. That's 30 on the back nine, thank you. "Phil started
making every putt," said Loren Roberts, who was paired with
Mickelson, closed with a 70 and tied for sixth. "At the 12th [a
570-yard par-5] he hit driver, driver, 50-footer--swish! That
was it. That was the turning point. He played aggressively and
never hit a shot off line. Shoot 30 on the back side when you're
on the leader board, and you're going to win almost every time."
Until Mickelson's charge, the tournament could've been called
the Honda Classic North. Just like the previous week, there was
Appleby, the 25-year-old Aussie whose breakthrough win at Heron
Bay had been so impressive, and Stewart, who had finished a
stroke back of Appleby only because he missed a two-foot putt
and failed to birdie two easy par-5s on the way in.
On Sunday, Appleby just missed an eagle at the 4th hole but made
one two holes later to take the lead. Then his putter went cold,
and he could make only one birdie on the closing nine. Still, he
has emerged as a contender for best Australian on Tour. "It was
a sour finish to a day that was better than that," said Appleby,
who lives across the street from Bay Hill. "I knew Phil was the
man, that I had to chase him down. It was stimulating."
Stewart, who needs to win this week or next to get into the
Masters, again failed to birdie either par-5 on the back nine
and couldn't sink a key putt. By the time he dumped his approach
shot into the pond guarding the 18th green, his chances of
winning were already gone.
Uresti showed his resilience by responding with three straight
birdies after he had pulled his drive into a pond and bogeyed
the 3rd hole. On the back side, though, Uresti, who in the '94
Nike Shreveport Open made nine consecutive birdies, the alltime
record, made just one. He ended up tied for third, his best
finish on Tour.
Bay Hill seemed to have a little of everything. There was the
success story of favorite son Robert Damron, a rookie who grew
up next to Bay Hill's 10th green. He fulfilled one dream by
getting into the field and then tied for 11th and won enough to
earn a spot in this week's $3.5 million Players Championship.
"That's big," he said, smiling. "That's very big." Damron, who
eagled the 16th on Sunday, could have tied for ninth had he not
bogeyed the 12th after calling a penalty on himself. As he was
about to tap in a one-foot putt, his ball moved. "Your first
thought is, Did anybody else see that?" said Damron, who instead
immediately reported his violation to playing partner Colin
Woods, who moved to the Orlando area barely six months ago,
played Bay Hill's par-5 holes in 11 under but was one over on
the rest of the course. He was proud of his first-round 68,
saying he didn't play well, although he made every highlight
show with his birdie at the par-5 6th. Kids, don't try this at
home: When his drive ran through the landing area and stopped on
the edge of a pond, Woods removed his shoes and socks, stood in
shallow water and Tiger-powered a five-iron to the front fringe.
He chipped close for a tap-in birdie.
Woods made the highlights again on Friday when he drew a $1,000
fine for slow play after taking too long to hit his approach
from the rough to the 9th green. Asked if the fine hurt, the
21-year-old multimillionaire joked, "Yeah, it's killing me."
Woods chipped in during the third round, on the 2nd hole, but
also racked up three bogeys during a 71, including a three-putt
at the 7th hole, where he missed from a foot. He closed with 68
and tied for ninth.
The week was a success for Palmer, the tournament's host, simply
because he was fit enough to play. He had had prostate surgery
on Jan. 15, and doctors told him no golf for six weeks. On Day
43, Feb. 27, Palmer couldn't get to Bay Hill's first tee fast
enough. "I feel fine," he said before the first round. "I'm not
as strong as I was three months ago. I hope I don't embarrass
myself--but I've done that before."
Palmer played remarkably, for a 67-year-old, occasionally
pounding a drive past playing partner Fulton Allem. Palmer
almost didn't make it off the first tee, though. As they waited
on the tee box, Palmer asked his caddie to count the clubs in
his bag, a routine double-check. Oops. There were 15, one over
the limit. "I don't think he wants to go out on Tour," Palmer
joked with the gallery. "All we need to do is hit it and walk
back into the clubhouse. That would have made our score really
Palmer parred the first six holes, then went bogey, double
bogey, triple bogey, hooking his second shot out-of-bounds on
the 9th, to shoot 42 on the front. He finished with an 81. "It
was great to be out there, even though I didn't play the kind of
golf I wanted," he said. "It felt wonderful."
The King never posted a second score. He was a game five over
through 15 holes when darkness suspended play in the second
round, which had been delayed for two hours in the morning by
wet grounds. Annoyed by the delay, which he had questioned,
Palmer informed Tour officials on Friday night that he wouldn't
be back to finish the next day. "I didn't figure there was
anything I could accomplish," Palmer said when asked why he quit
his own tournament.
However, he feels good enough about his game that he'll play in
the Masters and in the PGA Seniors the following week at PGA
National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He has also filed an entry
for the U.S. Senior Open June 26-29 at Olympia Fields (Ill.)
Country Club. "I'd feel better if I was hitting the ball,"
Palmer said, "but at least I'm still looking down at the grass."
And on Sunday he got to watch a memorable, and vaguely familiar,
finish. "That was a real charge," said Davis Love III, who tied
Woods for ninth. "Isn't that how you're supposed to do it in
The victory was Mickelson's 10th on Tour and a reminder of how
silly it was that we let Tom Lehman's second-half brilliance in
1996 and Woods's splashy arrival overshadow Mickelson's four-win
performance a year ago. The victory was also special because of
the way Mickelson did it--charging from behind and doing
everything but hitching up his pants.
Asked if he had ever been compared to Palmer, Mickelson smiled.
"No," he said, "but that would be kinda cool."