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Feb. 26, 2007
Feb. 26, 2007

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Feb. 26, 2007

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Spoiler

Taking advantage of some unsightly gaffes by Phil Mickelson, Charles Howell finally made his mark by winning the Nissan Open

Tiger Woods haschanged even the nomenclature of golf. He gave us Tiger Slam, idiomatic forwinning four major championships in a row, but not in the same calendar year.And he originated cold-shafting, the term for starting predawn practice roundswithout so much as a warmup shot. ¶ Phil Mickelson, the Avis to Tiger's Hertz,made his contribution last week. We can now welcome Phili dip, employed eitheras a noun or a verb, into the game's lexicon. Chili dip is golfspeak for layingsod over the ball with a sand wedge, or hitting the ball fat. A Phili dip iswhen you do it on the green, the way Phil did on Riviera's 9th hole during thefinal round of the Nissan Open when it appeared as if he was on his way to hissecond victory in as many weeks.

This is an article from the Feb. 26, 2007 issue Original Layout

Facing a 98-footputt with a slab of fringe and rough blocking his path to the cup, Mickelsonelected to hit one of his patented flop shots. Smart play, but this patent musthave expired because Mickelson Phili dipped, stubbing his wedge into the greenand moving his ball only 15 feet. He salvaged a bogey, but the Phili dipexemplified the awkward, inexplicable way he lost a tournament that he seemedto have won from the moment he arrived--in style--in Los Angeles after hisdominating victory at Pebble Beach.

Mickelson, whocommuted the 100 miles from his house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to PacificPalisades by means of a chartered plane (Jet Set, G13), hadn't had much luck atRiviera--his best finish was a 15th in 1999--so he invited LPGA Hall of Famerand Riviera member Amy Alcott to accompany him on a practice round, duringwhich she offered advice on how to play the holes and read some of the trickiergreens. But on Sunday ... well, the ending may sound familiar. Coming to the72nd hole needing a par to win and a bogey to tie, Mickelson pushed his teeshot left, failed to reach the green with his approach, left a delicate pitchseven feet short and missed the par putt. When he subsequently couldn't matchthree straight pars by Charles Howell in a playoff, Mickelson had Phili dippedthe whole darn tournament.

Here's why it's sotough being Phil in the Tiger Woods Era. Last Friday afternoon Mickelson foundhimself on the right half of the 6th green. The pin was on the back left.Between Phil and the pin was the notorious bunker that squats in the middle ofthe green. A green with a bunker in the middle of it? At the Riv, it's genius.Anywhere else, it's goofy.

Anyway, Ernie Elswas also on the wrong side of the green and played a low-running chip to theback level. Phil, wielding his lob wedge like a scalpel, hit a remarkable flopto four feet and saved par. He brushed the ball off the green so cleanly thathe didn't bother to look down after his follow-through because he knew therewas no divot. Even Els, after seeing the shot, looked back at Mickelson with anexpression that said, You cannot be serious. Yes, Mickelson botched the sameshot on Sunday, but it's certainly in his repertoire. Like Tiger, Mickelsonloves the sort of challenge a shot like that presents. The difference is thatTiger's batting average is considerably higher.

Mickelson, who haswon 30 times on Tour, is destined to have his career compared with Woods's, sojust when it looked as if Mickelson had gotten over his U.S. Open follies atWinged Foot, and that his runaway Pebble Beach win (exemplified by his newdriving accuracy) might be the last step he needed to get on equal footing withWoods, he fumbled the Nissan with three bogeys on the final 10 holes and afourth on the third playoff hole. All Howell had to do for the win, his firstin five years, was rap in a three-footer for par.

"Who's goingto challenge Tiger? Nobody is right now," says Tour veteran Steve Flesch."Ernie, Vijay, Retief--all of these guys combined aren't going to challengeTiger. Phil is playing good right now, but Phil will be Phil."

Going into thefinal 18, Mickelson was a stroke ahead of Padraig Harrington and three clear ofHowell. Mickelson's lead could've been insurmountable had he not frittered awaythree seemingly inconsequential shots on the back nine on Saturday, lipping outa three-footer at the 12th, missing a six-footer for par at 13 and pulling histee shot way right of the green at the par-3 16th. On Sunday he lipped out ashort putt at the 13th that, seen in slow motion, appeared to be halfway intothe cup before horseshoeing back out. Then he misread a four-footer for birdieat the 16th and, needing the par at 18, made bogey with a poor approach andchip. "I had the tournament in control," said Mickelson, who likeHowell finished at 16-under 268. "I simply needed to par the last hole.There were a lot of opportunities that I let slide. It happens. It's part ofthe game."

So, too, is therise and fall of golfers. Last year was a tough one for Howell, who, afterdominating the junior and collegiate ranks (at Oklahoma State) and earning aTour card in only six pro starts in 2000, proceeded to become the poster boyfor an overrated, underachieving generation of "young guns." Aftershooting some embarrassing scores--80--84 in the Masters, his hometowntournament--Howell parted ways with David Leadbetter, who had coached him sincehe was 12.

"Deepdown," says Leadbetter, "I knew he wouldn't stay away too long,"and sure enough, after missing the cut at the International last August, Howellcalled Leadbetter and together they worked harder on his short game, focusingon shots from 140 yards and in.

"I'm a rangerat, I love to hit balls, I love the mechanics of the swing," says Howell."I can spend seven or eight hours on the range, and then you go, Well,there's [only] 30 minutes left for chipping and 30 minutes for putting, andwe're done. I did a better job this off-season of dividing my time."

The results havebeen impressive. Before Riviera, Howell already had two seconds (Hawaii andTorrey Pines), but beating Mickelson was huge for a player who has had ninerunner-up finishes but no wins since his only previous Tour victory, at the2002 Michelob Classic. "This is a relief," Howell said.

He has seen thespoils of victory, though, thanks to his friendship with fellow Orlandoresident Woods. "I remember one of the first times I went over to hishouse," Howell says. "He has his TV in the living room, and there areall four major trophies sitting there. He probably wondered what was wrong withme because I sat there and looked at them, mesmerized."

When someonepointed out on Sunday that he now has something Woods doesn't--a Nissan Opentrophy--Howell laughed. "I can't give him any stick," he said. "Areyou kidding?"

Howell didn't makethe last Presidents or Ryder Cup team, but maybe now, at 27, he's ready tofulfill expectations. The best part of his winning performance was his clutchshotmaking, especially his putting, during a six-under 65 on Sunday. He made a25-footer for birdie at the 14th hole after watching Jim Furyk putt on the sameline and a 30-footer at the 16th on Robert Allenby's line. The biggest puttscame on the 72nd hole, at which he left his approach just short of the green,pounded a putt up the hill to about 10 feet and coolly sank the second forpar.

Better yet, thewin should move him far enough up in the World Ranking, from 45th to 16th, tonail down a berth at the Masters. (The top 50 are invited.) "The place isso darn special to me that I couldn't imagine watching it from the couch athome," he says. "I'd probably have to go on vacation somewhere withouta TV, but then again, I'd want to watch it. It wouldn't be a goodweek."

Last week,however, was.

• For AlanShipnuck's weekly Hot List, go to SI.com/golf.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN FOUGHT DESIGN; BOB GRAVES (INSET)BIG YEAR The Gallery is one of five Fought (inset) designs with significant events in 2007.PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGESOUT OF GAS? Mickelson, who almost ended the playoff with a 60-footer on the first extra hole, was playing for the fifth straight week.PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGESSHORT STORY Howell's hard work from 140 yards and in paid off in the playoff, when he got up and down three times.EIGHT PHOTOSCOURTESY OF CBS (MICKELSON SEQUENCE, 8)BIG DIPPER Mickelson's attempt to pitch instead of putt his ball on the 9th green ended in duffer-style embarrassment when he stubbed his wedge into the turf.