Is This The Week? Now that he has altered his game and his attitude, there's no good reason why Phil Mickelson shouldn't finally win his first major

April 11, 2004

What will Phil do next? That's the cute tagline to Mickelson's
Ford commercials, and the ad writers nailed it. The phrase
perfectly captures Mickelson's approach to golf and to life, as
well as how he is perceived by the public. ¶ What will Phil do
next? If the venue is the golf course, here are some of the
things he's done already: won the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA in
the same year (only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have also done
it); won a PGA Tour event as an amateur (in the last 20 years,
only one other player, Scott Verplank, has done that); and won 22
Tour titles by age 33 (more than Davis Love III and Greg Norman).

Off the course Mickelson has surprised us by doing things like
stuffing a basketball--with the aid of a trampoline--during a
Phoenix Suns game; skiing even after breaking a leg on the
slopes; earning a pilot's license; winning a preseason wager on
the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens; and trying out (as
a righthanded pitcher) for the Class AA Akron Aeros.

In the here and now, though, What will Phil do next? is an even
more intriguing question. This year we've seen Mickelson evolve
as a golfer by modifying his pedal-to-the-metal style and
forsaking the 340-yard drive in favor of a more accurate and
conservative--dare we say smarter?--approach. He has a more
balanced swing and, more important, has added a fade to his
arsenal to better control the ball. This year Mickelson is all
about fairways and greens. The New Phil has hit the fairway on
63% of his drives, up dramatically from 49% last year, and he has
improved his ranking in greens hit in regulation from 107th to
19th, while dropping from third to 16th in driving distance. By
keeping his ball in play, Mickelson is making fewer big numbers.
In 29 rounds this year he has made only four double bogeys.

Which brings us to what Phil will really do next, and that is win
his first major championship. Conveniently, one is being played
this week.

In addition to the changes Mickelson has made to his game,
history seems to be on his side. Even the Old Phil played
remarkably well in the Masters. Since 1995 he has six top 10s at
Augusta National, including his current streak of three straight
third-place finishes. Add the fact that Mickelson is not only
playing the most consistent golf of his career but is also
playing better than anyone else on Tour in 2004, and you can see
why he's the man to beat. In eight starts Mickelson is 85 under
par and has a win (Bob Hope) and four other top five finishes,
plus two top 10s. He also has the lowest scoring average on Tour
(69.11), a stat normally owned by Woods. Although Mickelson
finished 10th, eight shots behind Zach Johnson, at the BellSouth
Classic at the TPC at Sugarloaf, outside Atlanta, he hit 40 of 56
fairways (71%) and putted well (10th-best in the field). So be
forewarned: Mickelson has never been so well-armed and more
ready--and more likely--to win the Masters. He's the 800-pound
favorite in the room.

"Some people have already written him off, thinking, He's never
going to be the guy," says Tour veteran Dan Forsman. "That has
taken some heat off him. I think this is his time."

The New Phil was born of a rocky 2003. In March a difficult birth
endangered the lives of his wife, Amy, and their newborn son,
Evan, for a few scary days and left Mickelson shaken. Then he was
criticized for the comments he made about Tiger Woods's
"inferior" equipment. All spring Mickelson had swing issues. The
nadir came shortly before the Masters, when he decided not to
practice for five days before the tournament rather than continue
to hit poor shots. That he somehow came in third at Augusta may
rank as one of his most amazing accomplishments.

This year Mickelson reinvented himself. He has maintained a
serious workout regimen that includes cardio exercises and
martial arts, and he has put in extra time with swing coach Rick
Smith and short-game expert Dave Pelz. What, precisely, are they
working on? Sorry, that's classified, and Smith and Pelz have
been told to button up.

"All you're really seeing is a more balanced Phil Mickelson, and
I mean swing balance," is all Smith will say. "It has nothing to
do with shortening his swing. It has everything to do with
creating a swing that has balance."

Mickelson's recurring fault had been falling back on his
follow-through, which caused a hook. Now, with a stronger lower
body, a right-to-left ball flight and less of a
grip-it-and-rip-it disposition on every tee shot, Mickelson has
taken the right side of the course out of play. "I don't think
Phil has changed his stripes as a player," says Duffy Waldorf,
"but you see other guys do well with a control game, and I think
Phil realized that having that type of game when he needs
it--whether it's for certain holes or for certain rounds or for
certain tournaments--is an important part of being a great
golfer."

In some ways the New Phil was born of pragmatism. To protect
courses in an age of 350-yard drives and 200-yard seven-irons,
the Tour has resorted to thickening the rough and making hole
locations more difficult. That puts a higher premium on playing
from the fairway and working the ball. (Mickelson has also
changed to a softer ball, which makes it easier to shape his
shots.)

All the changes have reinvigorated Mickelson. "The game feels
easier," he says. "I'm really enjoying playing golf. I get to the
course three or four hours before my tee time now because I can't
wait to hit balls."

Mickelson slipped over to Augusta for practice rounds on the
Monday and Tuesday of BellSouth week. Pelz joined him the first
day. In the clubhouse the next morning Mickelson was introduced
to U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Nathan Smith, 25, a grad student at
Clarion (Pa.) University, who was prepping for his first Masters.
While they waited out a rain shower, Mickelson asked Smith if he
had a game. No, Smith replied.

"C'mon, then," Mickelson said, "let's tee it up." Thrilled, Smith
played 18 with Mickelson, Rick Smith and an Augusta member, while
Nathan's dad, Larry, and Jim McKay, Mickelson's caddie, served as
their gallery.

Rick Smith liked what he saw. "This is the year," he predicted.
"He's on a mission, feeling really good, and I'm looking forward
to this week."

Everyone wants to see what, exactly, Phil will do next.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WALBERG GOING FOR THE GREEN Mickelson has had three straight thirds atAugusta, even without his A game.

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)