DOWN THE hill fromthe spot where Rita Hayworth once practiced her putting is the final hole atRiviera Country Club, a muscular (475 yards) par-4 that begins with a blind teeshot, climbs toward the salmon-colored clubhouse, bends to the right andfinishes at the base of a grassy amphitheater. On Sunday afternoon, as the sunmelted behind the towering eucalyptus and ancient sycamore above, LPGA Hall ofFamer Amy Alcott stood to the right of the 18th green explaining why, even inthe Tiger era, she expects Phil Mickelson to have a big year. She commented onMickelson's frame (tighter than in years past), his putting stroke(trustworthy) and his imagination (in full flight). "To win on a courselike this is like winning at Winged Foot or Augusta," said Alcott, whosneaked onto Riviera as a teenager and now plays the course as a member."You have to be a real artist. This course has a great feel to it, greatcharacter and a great personality. I think this is going to give him a lot ofmomentum." ¬∂ Like everyone else, Alcott had just witnessed Lefty put on aperformance worthy of the dramatic setting. Thanks to a rock-solid short game,Mickelson made the Northern Trust Open the 33rd victory of his PGA Tour career,holding off Jeff Quinney by two shots to etch his name on a trophy that JackNicklaus never won and that Tiger Woods—at least for now—has chosen not topursue. The win, the No. 2--ranked Mickelson's first of the young season,propels him into the first big event of 2008, this week's Accenture Match PlayChampionship in Tucson, where 63 of the top 64 players in the world, includingWoods, will be in the field. Woods, ranked No. 1, has won his last four startsdating back to the '07 BMW Championship. He is 2 for 2 in '08, winning atTorrey Pines and in Dubai. ¬∂ Mickelson gave ground to Woods at Torrey, inMickelson's hometown of San Diego, tying for sixth, but he is now one up onWoods at Riviera, which is just up the road from Woods's childhood home inCypress. Tiger made his first Tour start at Riviera as a 16-year-old, but after10 years of leaving the place empty-handed, he has now skipped the last twoplayings.
Woods's absence hasbecome a talking point at Riviera, if not an overt cause for concern among amembership that includes the likes of actor Larry David, comedian Billy Crystaland crooner Johnny Mathis. Some say the final straw came in 2006, when hewithdrew after getting drenched in a rainstorm—his caddie, Steve Williams,failed to pack an umbrella—and catching a cold. And there's talk that Woodssimply doesn't like putting on poa annua greens, which can be bumpy, or playinglengthy rounds. Woods has had the same issues with the AT&T Pebble BeachNational Pro-Am, which he also eliminated from his rota.
Further speculationhas centered on the horrendous traffic along Sunset Boulevard between the cluband the 405 Freeway, a stretch of three miles that can take an hour to traverseon any given weeknight. Tom Pulchinski, the Northern Trust tournament director,said that a consultant has been hired to study traffic patterns in one of themost exclusive neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but, "The course was built inthe 1920s. We can't buy the houses, knock them down and build moreroads."
LEAVE IT toMickelson, an inventor of circus shots, to cook up a scheme to extricatehimself from the grip of L.A. traffic. For the second straight year he commutedby private plane from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, 110 miles to the south. Eachmorning he flew out of McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad and landed at theSanta Monica Airport, about six miles from Riviera. Mickelson estimated thatthe trip from the front door of his house to the gates of Riviera took about anhour. A year ago the plan seemed to be leading Mickelson to victory until hebogeyed the 72nd hole and fell into a playoff with Charles Howell, the eventualwinner. Nevertheless, Mickelson again opted for air travel and pregame tipsfrom Alcott. Last Wednesday she occasionally asked him to hit flop shots, justfor kicks—"I want you to really fillet this one," Alcott told him—butshe also gave him pointers on Riviera's subtle greens.
February 25, 2008
"I said, 'Phil,you don't need me,'" said Alcott. "He said, 'But you've got greateyes.' Can you imagine Ben Hogan calling up Patty Berg and saying, 'Patty, yougrew up at Interlachen—will you help me?' It's the uniqueness of Phil becausehe likes information, but more important, it speaks to the wealth and breadthof him."
Carrying afour-stroke lead over Quinney into the weekend, Mickelson's putting kept himout of trouble despite the occasional wayward shot. (For the week he rankedeighth in putts per greens hit in regulation.) On Saturday, following an ace byQuinney at the 199-yard 6th hole, Mickelson threw a birdie on top of him,draining a downhill six-footer. When he temporarily fell a stroke behind onSunday after a bogey at the 9th, Mickelson birdied the 10th from six feet andthen got up and down from a bunker at 14, curling in a seven-footer for par(Big Play, page G14) while Quinney made the second of three straight bogeys."When I first started playing here, I didn't understand the nuances of thiscourse," Mickelson said. "Last year was when I started to put ittogether, and I'm fortunate to break through this year."
After making astress-free par at the last, Mickelson shook the hands of playing partnersQuinney and John Rollins, then headed toward the stairs behind the green. Whenhe spotted Alcott along the rope line, he leaned over and gave her a hug.Mickelson's caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, carrying the 18th flagstick, turned toAlcott and said, "Nice going, Amy."
Looking trim in hisSunday black, Mickelson marched to the top of the stairs, walked past a statueof Hogan and was soon talking about the Match Play and the run-up to Augusta.Mickelson knows that every step in February and March is about building towarda perfect week in April. Somewhere beyond the rolling hills of Riviera, Woodsis surely thinking the same thing.
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"I didn't understand the nuances of thiscourse," said Mickelson. "LAST YEAR WAS WHEN I STARTED TO PUT ITTOGETHER."