Major Problems Phil Mickelson has more wins than any other twentysomething on Tour, but there's one big hole in his record

April 04, 1999

The fellow in the corner, warily prodding fajitas with his fork,
is making the case against Phil Mickelson. It doesn't mean a hell
of a lot, the fellow says, to win 13 Tour events by the age of
28--not if your 13 doesn't include a major championship. You
aren't in the same league as David Duval, Ernie Els, Justin
Leonard or Tiger Woods if you are 0 for 26 in the tournaments
that really matter. There's tournament golf, he continues, and
then there's major tournament golf.

Since we aren't in a car, where you can terminate sports babble
by poking the seek button, we let the guy go on. Besides, the
fellow criticizing Phil Mickelson is none other than Mickelson
himself, and it's fascinating the way he parses his career in a
conspiratorial whisper, as if one of the pros at the next table
might overhear and disagree with his bleak assessment of himself.

Isn't it unfair, we interject, to place so much emphasis on four
randomly selected tournaments? No one faults Mark McGwire because
none of his 70 home runs came in the World Series.

Lefty refuses to grab the lifeline. "I don't think it's unfair,"
he says. "The majors take golf to the highest level. The greens
are faster and harder than you see anywhere else. The fairways
are narrower. The rough is deeper. The majors challenge you in
ways that regular Tour events don't."

Mickelson's humble soliloquy, delivered three weeks before this
year's Masters, catches us by surprise. There is always some
poor sap labeled "best player never to have won a major," and
his patter invariably goes like this: I never give it a thought.
Yeah, I get asked about it 30 or 40 times a day, but that
doesn't bother me. I'd like to win one, but if I don't, it won't
take anything away from my career. That's when you notice that
the speaker has bent his spoon into a facsimile of the
Volkswagen logo.

But here's Mickelson, straightening spoons with his candor. He
knows he is breaking with tradition, not to mention his own
practice. "In the past I've downplayed the majors," he admits,
"but from now on they are the only tournaments that matter. I'm
going to put all my emphasis on just those four."

We look for a maniacal gleam in his eyes, but Mickelson's betray
nothing but his practiced sincerity. Later his wife, Amy,
confirms his change of attitude. "He thinks that by now he
should have won a major," she says. "I'm proud of him for not
trying to duck it."

We are dealing, of course, with the famous Mickelson confidence.
This is the guy who won a Tour event, the 1991 Northern Telecom
Open, in Tucson, when he was still a junior at Arizona State;
who hit a fearless flop shot off hardpan to turn the tide
against the British and Irish at the '91 Walker Cup; who
outdazzled Leonard in a playoff at the '96 Phoenix Open in the
decade's best head-to-head battle of young stars; who won three
out of a possible three points at Oak Hill in his first Ryder
Cup. Mickelson's hobbies? Skiing and flying, naturally.

But there is a sense of late that Mickelson needs either a
string of Tour wins or a victory in a major to recapture the
public's attention, which has swung to Duval and Woods. (A
recent headline in the Los Angeles Times: LEFTY IS SUDDENLY
BEING LEFT BEHIND.) There is also a growing body of Mickelson
skeptics who wonder why a player hailed so often for his silky
putting stroke finishes so deep in the putting stats. "He's
supposed to be this incredible putter," says a Tour pro who is
otherwise impressed with Mickelson's game. "He must be holing a
lot of them when we're not looking."

Or not. Last year Mickelson won twice, finished second twice and
wound up sixth on the money list with a career-high $1.8
million--but ranked 80th in putting. This season he was 41st
through the Bay Hill Invitational, averaging 1.766 putts per
green hit in regulation.

Present these criticisms to Mickelson and he nods. He says
they're on the mark. That's why he put away his clubs at the end
of last August and spent seven weeks thinking about his game,
during which time he slipped from second to third on the money
list. For guidance he sought out former PGA champ Jack Burke,
who mentors Steve Elkington and other pros from his headquarters
at Champions Golf Club in Houston. ("The man has been there,"
says Mickelson, leaving where to the imagination.) For direction
he studied his statistics, noting, for instance, that last year
he was 37 over par on par-3 holes, which left him 169th on Tour.
("Par-3s can be big momentum killers, and it's clear I wasn't
playing them properly," he says.) For hardware he turned to
Scotty Cameron, who recently presented Mickelson with the simple
blade putter that now rides in his bag. ("I wanted a
heel-shafted putter with a blade that was the width of the
hole," he says. "I have to have that toe hooking to putt
effectively.")

But mostly Mickelson pondered the majors, trying to understand
why, for instance, he finished 34th at Sahalee last August, his
second-worst finish in a PGA Championship; or why he couldn't
generate a closing kick in the U.S. Open at Olympic, where he
tied for 10th; or why he shot a horrendous 28-over-par at
windswept Royal Birkdale, a debacle that included a third-round
85.

Mickelson's conclusion? He had become, as SI's Jaime Diaz once
described Mark O'Meara, the King of the B's--a golfer whose game
was tailored for ordinary Tour events.

"I was about attacking the pin and making ridiculous
up-and-downs," says Mickelson. "When I missed a green, I could
always lob the ball over those silly mounds and bunkers that
modern architects build." He could also spin the ball, making it
suck back or dance left or right. "On the relatively soft greens
we play every week, I could do that," he says. "I made a lot of
birdies."

But the majors are different. The greens aren't soft, the rough
is not compliant and even a master manipulator of the ball--Chi
Chi Rodriguez in his prime, for example--might as well be
playing with garden tools. "My short game is nullified by really
firm greens," says Mickelson. "I can't control the ball. It
races by the hole."

It's no good, either, to play the majors with the mind-set of a
conqueror. Victory more often goes to the survivalist pro, the
fairways-and-greens plodder who already has barrels of water,
batteries and cash put away for the Y2K crisis. So here's
Mickelson, in contention at the '97 PGA at Winged Foot,
attacking a sucker pin on the par-5 5th and taking five strokes
to get down from a greenside bunker. "I always wanted to win,"
he explains. "I didn't want to wait for somebody else to lose."
But in a major, as Mickelson now concedes, "those aggressive
instincts are detrimental."

If Mickelson is to start winning majors, he thinks he has to
stop being...Mickelson. Take those par-3s. He has to stop trying
to birdie them. ("My strategy now is to make four 3s," he says.)
His driver must get less work, even though he currently ranks an
impressive third on the Tour in total driving. He points out
that at Bay Hill he used to play the 5th hole, a 365-yard par-4,
with a driver and an L-wedge--missing the fairway half the time.
Now he hits a two- or three-iron off the tee and settles for a
pitching-wedge or nine-iron approach, avoiding trouble every
round. He says, "It's not easy for me to play 25 feet away from
the hole with a four-iron. I know I can hit that shot." But
cockiness is punished severely at majors.

Mickelson has reason to be optimistic at the moment on two
counts. First, to find the patience and humility he needs to win
majors, he can simply tap into his outside-the-ropes demeanor.
He is perhaps the Tour's most gracious star, signing autographs
tirelessly and facing reporters even when he has, say, shot 85
in the British Open. ("Here comes a class act," said a security
guard at Bay Hill, watching Mickelson leave the scorer's table.)

With his first child, a girl, expected in June, Mickelson is
certain to get a crash course in patience. "People already think
it's repulsive how nice he is to me," says Amy, who has been on
the road with Phil for the past month. "With this little girl
he'll really be whipped. Nobody will want to hang out with us."

Second, the major he is most likely to win--the Masters--is
being played this week. Unlike the courses at the other majors,
Augusta National sets up well for the golfer who can drive the
ball far, hit high shots into the greens, and chip and pitch on
glassy surfaces. That pretty much describes Mickelson, who has
contended at Augusta in three of the last four years, finishing
third in '96. "A place like Augusta rewards Phil's instincts and
imagination," says two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw. "He
knows he's capable of winning there."

Does he? When we ask Mickelson if he thinks there is a green
jacket in his future, he answers without hesitation, "I haven't
won it yet, but I think I will. It's just a matter of time." Not
wanting to appear too bold, he smiles and says, "The Open is
another story."

Whatever the venue, no one who knows Mickelson thinks that money
has made him complacent or that disappointment in the majors has
caused him to fear them. "He loves playing in majors, and I love
them, too," says Amy. "I love seeing him with that intensity. He
doesn't sleep as well the week of a major, and he gets really
focused."

Still, you have to wonder about a guy who grins and lowers his
shoulder to make it easier for the monkey to get on his back.
Lefty is finishing his lunch when we give him one last chance to
back down.

Duval hasn't won a major, either, we point out. Tiger has won
only one, same as Justin Leonard and Vijay Singh. Colin
Montgomerie has tried so hard that he's losing weight, and it
took O'Meara 19 years to break through. Doesn't that suggest
that winning majors is no longer the best measure of greatness?

Mickelson dabs at his mouth with his napkin, gives the question
some thought and finally says, "No. You have to challenge
yourself to bring out your greatest performance, and those four
tournaments are the ultimate challenge."

With the monkey practically shrieking in his ear, he adds, "And
I don't want to win just one."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK TROUBLING Mickelson has been a mystery in the majors, last year skying to a career-high 85 in the third round of the British Open. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN IN A FAMILY WAY Amy is due to have the Mickelsons' first child, a girl, in June. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK EASY DOES IT Mickelson's game plan for Augusta, where he has contended in three of the last four years, calls for plenty of patience.

"He thinks that by now he should have won a major," says Amy.
"I'm proud of him for not trying to duck it."

"I haven't won [the Masters] yet," says Mickelson, "but I think
I will. It's just a matter of time."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)