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Phil Mickelson and His Disasters on Sunday

By John M. Ross,
Phil Mickelson
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Phil Mickelson is one of the best shot-makers in the game. (.)

For those who think good golf is simply a case of perfected swing mechanics, let's move Phil Mickelson into a better light, where we can study him.

The tall, 30-year-old left-hander is one of the best shot-makers in the game. When he won his first PGA Tour event at age 20, the experts came up with lavish predictions for him, but the arrival of young Tiger Woods on the pro scene cut heavily into that attention. It was a difficult time for Lefty, but when he halted Tiger's incredible winning streak at six, his boosters were quick to respond. Now they were saying that he was the best hope for keeping Woods from running away with the game.

Observers agree that Mickelson's skills compare very favorably with Tiger's in length, management, short game and even putting. The difference is between the ears. As his string of recent episodes indicates, as soon as Lefty realizes he is in a position to win, he is overcome by some kind of mental crunch that undermines his talent and turns him into a loser. Some call it "choking," others blame it on the stress of playing for all that money. Perhaps it's simply another example of the mental toughness that must mesh with good mechanics for winning golf.

Whatever label the analysts might put on this, Mickelson is ensnared in its destructive grip. Six times this year he has blown either the lead or opportunities to win on the last nine holes when pressure is at its peak. It has earned him the sobriquet of "the left-handed Greg Norman," and has caused many to wonder if he will ever win that elusive first major title.

His latest disaster in the MasterCard colonial was a pitiful sight to watch. It was more crushing than usual because he had started out the last round so gloriously by piling up birdies on four of the first seven holes to stretch his lead. But then the crunch set in again, and he bogeyed the Nos. 8 and 9. Onlookers saw the frustrated Lefty, waiting near the ropes to putt, pat the stomach of his onlooking pregnant wife for luck. It didn't help. The three-footer lipped out for another bogey. "Too bad his wife couldn't have putted for him," a galleryite cracked.

The miss dropped Mickelson out of the lead, and when he also bogeyed the 17th - this time, unbelievably, from two feet - Sergio Garcia, the young Spanish phenom, had his first PGA Tour victory. Lefty walked off the green looking like a fellow who had just seen a ghost, perhaps the ghosts of all those times he had died in the stretch.

To be sure, Mickelson is one of the most successful players on the Tour. He has five victories in the last year and a half, and is No. 2 in the world rankings, behind Tiger. And he also sits behind Woods on the money list with $2.7 million through the Colonial. But think of how he'd stand if he had played up to his game in those six blown events! Perhaps Tiger might not be sitting as comfortably!

Lefty found the bumps in this year's rocky road early. His win at San Diego, which saw him double-bogey the final hole, wasn't one of the most attractive victories on record. And at the AT&T Pebble Beach, playing the par-5 18th just one shot behind, he hit his approach into the Pacific Ocean, drowning that dream.

He looked like he might have gotten the last-round crunch under control at Bay Hill, when he finished with a scorching 66, highlighted by a gutsy up-and-down par at the last hole. But now it was bad luck that did him in. Actually, it was a lucky bounce on the drive and a heroic 15-foot birdie putt that made Tiger the winner by one stroke.

When Lefty made still another try for his first major at the Masters, he was brimming with confidence after his opening round of 67 gave him a three-shot edge on the Tiger. True to the form chart, Woods came roaring back in his effort to bag an unprecedented fourth major and regained a one-stroke edge. And that's where Mickelson stood at the final par-3 16th. Playing with Tiger in the final group, a factor that Lefty thought would put pressure on Woods, Mickelson hit a poor tee-shot and wound up three-putting from 40 feet. Guess who felt the pressure? Lefty finished three shots out.

A similar scenario played out at the Compaq Classic in New Orleans, where Lefty held the 54-hole lead before going into the customary Sunday swoon. It came a little earlier this time, after his hooked tee shot on the 5th led to a triple-bogey. He blew another one at the 15th and finished two strokes behind the victorious David Toms.

Mickelson's collapse at the Colonial clouded some of the glitter of Garcia's long-sought triumph. El Nino, as they call him back home, also had been proclaimed as a legitimate challenger to Tiger ever since he came this close to beating him in the PGA Championship at Medinah. He hadn't won anything on the Tour in 19 tries, but his sizzling closing 63 at the Colonial would seem to indicate that his experience of playing with such a large segment of the world's best players on the U.S. circuit is starting to pay off. Oddly enough, there were as many golf fans talking about the popular Mickelson's disaster as there were about Sergio's notable triumph.

While Lefty seemed to take the crash landing at Colonial harder than most of his previous catastrophes, it's too early to give him up for dead. But that's what some of the media seems to be doing. Some reason that the disasters have come with such frequency that they're leaving a lasting mark on him.

Over the past week, comments in the Grill Room connected with that.

"He'll relive those things in instant replay, as they flash through his mind," someone was saying, "and every time he steps up to the ball in a tight situation, it's likely he will be at risk."

"I think he should take a year off and get his head straight," another added. Everyone agreed that radical action was probably the best course. More practice on the range or the putting green wouldn't solve it.

When I watched as the crestfallen figure of Mickelson walked off the 18th after the crushing blow had been struck last week, my mind flashed back to a similar scene of Arnold Palmer at the final hole in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco. He had just blown a seven-stroke lead to Billy Casper, and he now faced a playoff the next day for the title.

"Look at his eyes, he's in a daze," my sidekick Oscar (The Untouchables) Fraley said, as Arnie dragged himself off the 18th. "I'll bet you fifty right now that he'll lose the playoff, and another fifty that he'll never win another major."

He lost the playoff by four shots, and never did win another major.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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