Say this about Phil Mickelson: It's never boring with him around. In recent weeks the arthritic Hall of Fame inductee had made news for suing an Internet provider (in hopes of silencing an abusive commenter), going public with his plans to redesign Torrey Pines's North course and putting his Rancho Santa Fe mansion up for sale ($7.1 million, practice putting green included). Most significant, his daughter Sophia, 10, suffered a mild seizure. (Thankfully, she's O.K.) The only place Mickelson wasn't doing something of note was on the golf course; he was a nonfactor in his first three starts of 2012. So naturally on Sunday at Pebble Beach he summoned his most resounding performance in ages, blowing away the field with a bogeyless 64 to steal the 40th victory of his career and remind us that at 41, he can still play a little.
"Excluding the four major championships he's won, this has to be the best final round of his career," said Mickelson's caddie of two decades, Jim Mackay.
Mickelson was six strokes off the lead of journeyman Charlie Wi at the start of the final round, but the tournament within the tournament was with his playing partner, Tiger Woods. It was a dream matchup for Mickelson, who in the last five years has learned to elevate his play in the presence of his longtime adversary. (In eight of their previous 11 rounds together Phil had shot the lower score, including five in a row on Sundays.) For Tiger, it's like trying to beat an overbearing older brother, and he seemed bothered from the very beginning of the round, missing short putts and hitting loose short irons on Pebble's exploitable opening holes.
Mickelson was focused and fired up, birdieing the 2nd, 4th and 5th holes on the strength of gorgeous approach shots. And yet the key moment of the round may have been on the par-4 3rd, where he poured in a five-footer for a momentum-saving par. Last year this most instinctive of feel players was so shaky on such knee-knockers that he experimented with a belly putter. But after a winter of working on his stroke and his mental game, Mickelson has gone back to a traditional putter and found some peace of mind.
February 20, 2012
"He's the most calm I've ever seen him on the greens," says Mickelson's putting coach, Dave Stockton. "He tends to think about things way too much. Right now he doesn't want any ideas or thoughts, nothing technical. He's simply seeing it and feeling it and doing it. I'm really tickled."
On Pebble's par-5 6th hole Mickelson buried a 21-footer for eagle, taking the lead from a faltering Wi and moving two ahead of Woods, who after a birdie at the 6th responded with three straight bogeys. Tiger at last showed a little fight by holing out a bunker shot on the 12th, but Mickelson answered by draining a 30-footer for par. "I feel very inspired when I play with him," Phil said of Tiger. "I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf. I seem more focused."
Just to rub it in, Mickelson made a 38-footer to save par on the 15th hole. (For his part, Woods missed five putts inside five feet.)
Mickelson's victory ties him with Cary Middlecoff and Tom Watson for ninth on the alltime list. Only giants of the game loom ahead: Hagen (45 wins), Casper (51), Nelson (52), Palmer (62), Hogan (64), Woods (71), Nicklaus (73) and Snead (82).
This latest victory was a testament to the people around Mickelson. He spent the two days preceding the tournament hanging out at Cypress Point, enjoying the club's privacy and famous course. Mickelson has cultivated friendships with a number of Cypress members, and his comfort level with the locals—and their throaty support—helps to partially explain his four victories at Pebble Beach, a total exceeded only by Mark O'Meara (five).
On Thursday evening Mickelson's wife, Amy, came to town, the kind of getaway that has only recently become possible as she progresses in her treatments for breast cancer. During Mickelson's second round, which began on the 10th hole at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, he missed a short par putt on the 18th hole. He was, in Amy's words, "pretty mopey." Between nines Amy pulled her hubby aside for a pep talk. "She said, 'Come on now, cheer up. Let's go make some birdies,'" Phil said later. "It was her bubbly, positive attitude that got me going." In cold, windy and rainy conditions Mickelson played his final nine holes in 29 to get back in the tournament.
On Saturday at Pebble Beach he had his wobbliest ball-striking round of the week but still ground out a two-under 70 to move into a tie for fourth. Mickelson's steadfast play owed something to his work with sports psychologist Julie Elion, the founder of the Center for Athletic Performance and Enhancement, in Washington, D.C. They got together last July because, as Mickelson says, "there's a lot of little mental hurdles. And it comes down to being able to focus on each shot, not trying to force the issue, trying to be patient with the round, accepting the bad breaks. It's all these little hurdles that you have to deal with to get the end result."
Mickelson's closing 64 was a monument to the shorter, tighter, more repeatable swing he has honed under Butch Harmon. On Sunday, Phil hit 13 of 14 fairways and impressed a very discerning audience. "He was hitting it flush," said Woods, who shot 75 to fade to 15th. "To hear the sound.... And his wedge game was right on the money." One of Harmon's points of emphasis has been to get Mickelson to vary the spin and trajectories of his approach shots. On the 13th hole on Sunday the pin was at the back of the steeply pitched green. After a perfect drive Mickelson had 144 yards left. That's a comfortable distance for his pitching wedge, but a towering shot with a lot of sauce would have ripped back to the front of the green. So Mickelson pulled an eight-iron and played a low shot with minimal spin. His ball skittered to within two feet of the hole for a kick-in birdie.
On the 14th hole it was Mackay's turn. The approach to the par-5 green is among the most fearsome shots in golf, and with Mickelson protecting a lead, it would've been easy for him to play defensively. Instead his caddie "erased all doubt," said Phil. "He said, 'Let's make the bird. We need one more here.' It got me aggressive and into a positive frame of mind. After 20 years now, we are working at our best. He was able to get my mind refocused so many times."
With Mickelson it only takes one remarkable round for expectations to soar. He is certainly well-positioned for a big year: Having won three of the last eight Masters, he will go into Augusta as the prohibitive favorite. A month later he'll be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and then for June's U.S. Open he returns to Northern California and another course defined by heavy sea air and tiny poa annua greens, the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Mackay had quietly been waiting for his man to put together a breakout performance. Now that it has happened, he expects Mickelson to continue making news for all the right reasons. "Don't ever question how motivated Phil is," says Mackay. "He's as motivated now as he was at 25. He's as hungry with four majors as he was with zero. Maybe more so. He still thinks he has a lot to prove in this game, and he's ready to go about proving it."
"DON'T EVER QUESTION HOW MOTIVATED PHIL IS," SAYS MACKAY. "HE'S AS MOTIVATED NOW AS HE WAS AT 25. MAYBE MORE SO."
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