Suffering In Silence There are some things, like his dismal season, that Phil Mickelson would rather not discuss

November 03, 2003

Phil Mickelson had just come out of the scorer's cabin last
Thursday at the Funai Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., when a
young woman from ESPN asked him if he would come to the TV booth
for a short interview. "Uh, who's in there?" Mickelson asked. ¶
"Melnyk," she replied, meaning TV golf analyst and former Tour
player Steve Melnyk. ¶ Mickelson hesitated, but finally nodded.
"Yeah, I'll talk some." ¶ A moment later, when greeted by a
couple of reporters looking for a postround comment, Mickelson
flashed his warmest smile and said, "I'm going to pass, guys.
Thanks, though." ¶ It was an interesting contrast, if only
because it provided a clue to Mickelson's state of mind as he
nears the end of his most frustrating season as a professional
golfer. The television booth, if shared with a nonconfrontational
host, gives Mickelson the opportunity to employ his charm to full
advantage and speak directly to his many fans. Reporters'
notebooks, on the other hand, are as attractive as a bag of
anthrax-laced mail. ¶ It was black ink on white paper that put
Mickelson on the defensive almost before he hit his first shot of
2003. When he told a magazine at the beginning of the year that
he thought Tiger Woods was hampered by "inferior equipment,"
Mickelson violated an unwritten rule among players against
dissing equipment companies, a major source of player revenue.
When he joked that Tiger suffered from distance envy--"He hates
that I can fly it past him now"--Mickelson seemed to be taunting
the game's best player.

Now the year's results have been written, and Mickelson can't
like what he reads. With the exception of a good week at the
Masters, in which he finished third for the fourth time in his
career, Mickelson has been a mere shadow of the player who won 21
PGA Tour events in the previous 12 seasons. Second in the World
Ranking at the start of the year, he has since fallen to 13th.
Second on the money list in 2002, he now wallows at 37th. With
his 30th-place finish last week in the Funai Classic, Mickelson
has gone 16 months without a Tour victory.

"He's not playing with the fire and zest he had before," says
Nick Price, the former PGA and British Open champ. "It looks to
me as if he's become too concerned about how far he's hitting
it." Price adds, "He hits it plenty far enough."

Ask others what's wrong with Mickelson, and you'll get some
variation of the terrible too's: He's too absorbed with
mechanics. He's too bold on the course. He's too heavy. He's too
sensitive to criticism that he's never won a major championship.
He's too preoccupied with his wife and kids.

Talk to someone close to Mickelson, and other, more forgiving
reasons abound. Steve Loy, Mickelson's coach at Arizona State
(and now his agent), points out that Mickelson's tournament and
practice schedules were disrupted in the spring, as Amy endured a
difficult pregnancy before the birth of the couple's third child,
Evan. "So obviously he didn't get off to his normal good start on
the West Coast," says Loy. "Then he had swing problems in the
middle of the year. He was working with Butch Harmon, Peter
Kostis and Rick Smith. That set him back. Then the confidence
factor kicked in. Put those things together, and it's been a
tough year."

Tour veteran Rocco Mediate, another friend of Mickelson's,
wonders why golf analysts get worked up whenever a top player
hits a rough patch. "It's impossible to sustain that type of golf
every year," says Mediate, who tied for ninth at the Funai. "Now
that Phil's won only $1.6 million or so for the year, everyone
thinks he's going to the dogs. I don't get it." Asked if he
thought Mickelson had lost his desire or fallen into bad habits,
Mediate laughs. "He works just as hard. He simply hasn't driven
the ball well. That's all that's stopped him."

Mickelson's struggle to hit fairways is nothing new--he has never
finished higher than 76th in driving accuracy--but for most of
2003 he has had to play slightly more than half of his second
shots from long grass, bunkers, trees or drop zones. Guessing
that the problem was his backswing, which has always been longer
and a shade looser than most on Tour, he worked on shortening and
tightening his action. When that didn't work, he went back to his
old swing. Not surprisingly, Mickelson's play in the summer's
three majors had an inconsistent, almost desperate quality. At
the U.S. Open he struggled on the weekend and came in 55th. At
the British Open he shot a final-round 78 and finished 59th. At
the PGA Championship he thrilled fans one moment. (He opened with
a 66, and his intentional slice from the rough with a driver on
Oak Hill's 4th hole was one of the year's most memorable shots.)
And disappointed them the next. (His reckless attempt to clear
the water with his approach from the rough on the very next hole
led to a double bogey and took him out of contention.) He
finished 23rd. But three weeks ago, at the Las Vegas
Invitational, Mickelson hit 60% of the fairways, shot five rounds
in the 60s and tied for ninth. "I saw some good things happening
in Vegas," says Loy. "He's really getting it worked out."

Mickelson's progress on the psychological front is harder to
gauge. Last year, when he finished second to Woods in the U.S.
Open, he was the gallery favorite--Lovable Lefty. Sixteen months
later, his failure to sustain the challenge to Woods has made him
the butt of jokes, the American equivalent of the frustrated
Scot, Colin Montgomerie.

What happened? For starters, Mickelson's casual jab at Tiger's
sticks led to a predictably sharp response from Nike, whose
executives called his remarks laughable and cast him as a
frustrated underachiever. Months of substandard play by Mickelson
allowed that perception to gain traction. He may have made
matters worse at summer's end by trying out as a pitcher for the
Triple A Toledo Mud Hens. It appeared to some that Lefty--who
pitches righty--had bagged the season, though friends of Phil say
that is rubbish.

Another Mickelson insider, who doesn't want to be quoted,
concedes that Phil was disappointed that other Tour players
didn't rise to his defense during the equipment imbroglio--
particularly those who had made similar comments that weren't
published. He is also said to be miffed that some writers
pilloried him without first checking to see if Tiger's equipment
was, in fact, inferior. (Woods, who has driven the ball almost as
poorly as Mickelson in '03, switched to an old Titleist driver in
August before settling on a new Nike driver last month.) "Phil's
been frustrated," says Loy, "but publicly he has tried to handle
it with class."

For the short term, then, it's zipped lips for Lefty. He'll play
in the Nov. 29-30 Skins Game, and after that he plans to work on
his game, his waistline and his Santa Claus impression for his
kids. Come January, he'll let us know whether he's the Mickelson
of old...or just an older Mickelson.

In the meantime, he'll pass on saying any more than that. Thanks,

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH UNFAIR SHAKE Mickelson felt he didn't get the support he deservedfrom his fellow players after he knocked Woods's equipment. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WALBERG [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES LOST SUMMER Mickelson struggled at the British (top) but had timeto try out for the Mud Hens and visit the Bills' camp. COLOR PHOTO: J.D.POOLEY/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SHAWN DOWD/DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE/AP [See caption above]