On to Oakmont

Phil Mickelson, the defending champion, failed to contend at Augusta, but only a fool would write off a guy with his talent and resilience
April 15, 2007

Amy Mickelsonlikes to say of her husband, "With Phil, it's all about the fun." WithPhil, it's all about the numbers, too. Both Phils were on display last week atthe Masters.

On Friday afternoon Numbers Phil was predicting that the winning score of thisyear's tournament would be over par. Fun Phil spent hours hanging out in theAugusta National clubhouse, often with his green jacket on, using"mister" in conversations with the older members, giving soul shakes tothe locker-room attendants who stopped to greet him.

Numbers Phil was thinking, even after a front-nine 40 on Sunday, that if hecould play home in 30, get himself in at four over par, he might have a chanceof winning his third Masters and second in a row. Fun Phil chatted with thewinner, Zach Johnson, all through the awards ceremony, like a schoolboy in anassembly.

On display atAugusta, for all to see, was the sum total of Phil: Fun Phil, Numbers Phil andthe Phil who can handle losing about as well as winning. He's plentyexperienced at both. At least this time he didn't have to put the winner'sjacket on Tiger Woods, as he has had to do once before, in 2005.

Tiger, of course,has changed the way we look at other elite golfers. We expect them to bemachines. The truth is, others--Mickelson included--win only when all thepieces of their game fall into place. Phil, especially, can't do the machinething.

When he came offthe 18th green on Sunday, all Gary Playered out (black shoes, black socks,black slacks, black belt, black shirt, black hat, glistening teeth), he did abrief interview with Peter Kostis of CBS. The two men have known each other foryears, but that didn't stop Kostis from asking a real question.

Kostis: "Yourcritics will say you still haven't recovered from Winged Foot. To that end, didthat play any part at all, whatsoever?"

Mickelson:"Into what?"

Kostis: "Intoyour performance this week."

Mickelson: "Idon't see the correlation."

Kostis's questionwas rooted in a modern fixation, trying to guess when a player is finished. Whynot let the guy play out his career and see what happens? Mickelson is 36.He'll likely have 30 or 40 more majors in which he'll still be competitive. Hisgame--to say nothing of his nature--doesn't lend itself to being in contentiontime and again, the way Tiger's does. For one thing Mickelson drives it toocrookedly. For another, he's always so busy reinventing himself and thecomposition of his bag. His energy level comes and goes, as does his shortputting. But you'd be a fool to bet against a player with such lavish talentand such big ideas. Soon after hitting a low, screaming drive on 15 at Augustaon Sunday, he was talking about how useful that shot will be at the BritishOpen at Carnoustie in July.

What Phil reallythinks of Tiger, we don't know, but he has figured out a graceful way to handlethe public Tiger-versus-Phil discussion. In his pretournament press conferenceMickelson repeated a line he used successfully with a writer from ESPN theMagazine: "If I have a great rest of my career, and I go out and win 20more tournaments and seven more majors to get to 50 wins and 10 majors, whichwould be an awesome career, I still won't get to where he's at today. So Idon't try to compare myself against him." You have to admit, that's reallygood.

Phil and Tigerare not Arnold and Jack, despite the broad similarities. Yes, Phil's aswashbuckler, as Palmer was, and Woods is a plodder, à la Nicklaus. But Tigerhasn't pushed Phil off the stage, as Nicklaus did to Palmer. Phil didn't winhis first major until year eight of the Tiger Era. Still, an observationNicklaus has made of Palmer could be applied to Mickelson. Jack once said,"Nobody could enjoy being whoever they are as much as Arnold enjoys beingArnold." Phil has some of that.

A few years agohe tried to stifle himself when he talked to the media. But he found hecouldn't do the middle-of-the-road thing. Last week, when a reporter asked himabout his stated desire to go head-to-head with Woods in majors, Mickelsonanswered, "In the words of Charles Barkley [speaking of] his autobiography,'I think I was misquoted on that.'" Phil was having a really good time, anda packed house laughed.

There's a humanbeing in there. He talked last week about Brett Quigley, who flew home fromAugusta when his wife went into labor with their first child. (Quigley made itback for the start of the tournament, but he hadn't been sure he would when heleft.) Mickelson said, "He's going to have more Masters, and he may havemore children, but you will never get back the birth of your first child. It'sthe most emotional experience that my wife and I have ever shared, the birth ofour three children." You could fake that stuff, but why would youbother?

Regarding hisgolf, who knows? Mickelson looked great winning the Masters last year, and helooked pretty darn good through 71 holes at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot,despite the erratic driver. He was leading, right? He looked like a zombie atthe Ryder Cup in Ireland and like a world-beater when he won the AT&Tagainst a weak field at Pebble Beach in February. Last week he was driving intothe trees, and Augusta is choking with them now. And still he was never totallyout of the running--through three rounds he was only four shots back--until heopened his Sunday round with a triple-bogey 7, starting the day with an errantdrive into a bunker. He wound up 10 shots behind Johnson.

Anyway, his24th-place finish wasn't for lack of effort. He had some marathon sessions onthe Augusta National practice tee, working with his regular coach, Rick Smith,and not Butch Harmon. He played a bunch of practice rounds. He studied theweather maps. But he made a slew of loose swings, as Phil can do. He was nevernear enough to the lead that you could hyperanalyze--if that's your thing--hison-course decisions.

But you'd have tosay the guy's in a good place. With three majors and 30 PGA Tour wins, he'sgoing to the Hall of Fame. He has a plane with two TVs, a lovely family, and hecan play Augusta National anytime he likes. He digs the club and themembership, and the feeling is mutual. During the awards ceremony on thepractice green, Billy Payne praised Mickelson for the fine job he didrepresenting the club in his year as defending champion. "You made us allvery proud," the new Augusta National chairman said, and Phil beamed. Helikes approval.

But he knows whatyou know: that his best chance for a major this year has already come and gone.Were you watching Phil during the Butler Cabin ceremony? Mickelson and Johnsonwere sitting side by side. Jim Nantz of CBS was interviewing the winner, askinghim this and that. For a moment Phil got a faraway look in his eyes. He wasdrifting out, staring into some other place. Sunday at Augusta belonged tosomeone else, and Phil's mind, always on the prowl, had moved on.

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A few years ago he TRIED TO STIFLE HIMSELF when hetalked to the media. But he found he couldn't do the middle-of-the-roadthing.

PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverFATALFLAW
Mickelson never recovered from a 7 on the 1st hole on Sunday.
PHOTOSIMON BRUTYPERFECTFIT
A gracious Mickelson may have been relieved to pass the green jacket to Johnson(right) instead of Woods.

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)