Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 3, 2013

Phil Still Thrills

He is 42 now, and when Phil Mickelson arrived in Arizona this past week he hadn’t won a tournament in fifty-one weeks. He’s also more than two years removed from revealing that he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. While he insists the condition is controlled by medication and a vegetarian diet, the combination of its existence, his age and recent performance all lead to the logical conclusion that Mickelson’s years as a dominant force on the PGA Tour are winding down. But logic has seldom played a central role in Lefty’s career, and as he showed at the Phoenix Open there’s no reason to think that it will start controlling things now.

Like most of the population, Mickelson is right-handed. But he plays golf left-handed because as a child he would stand facing his father and mimic his swing. Golf fans have known that story for more than two decades, so they have gotten used to its fundamental illogic. He was a 20-year old amateur, a student at Arizona State University, when he won the Tucson Open in 1991. Amateurs don’t win PGA Tour events, but no one told the fresh-faced young kid that back then. His first win as a professional came two years later, and he went on to pile up victories throughout the 1990’s and into the first years of this century. Yet despite those wins and his obvious ability, he failed time and again at golf’s four most important tournaments, eventually earning the undesired title of best golfer to have never won a major. Finally in 2004 he broke through with a one-stroke victory over Ernie Els at the Masters; and Mickelson has added two more green jackets and a PGA Championship in the years since.

On the course Mickelson’s game has often defied logic as well. Always prodigiously long off the tee, he hasn’t always been particularly straight. A highlight reel of Lefty’s career would include innumerable recovery shots from unexpected locations. On his way to winning the 2007 Players Championship he found himself in a waste bunker at the par-5 16th hole, his direct route to the green blocked by tall trees. Caddie Bones Mackay advised his boss to play a safe shot down the fairway. Without telling Mackay what he planned, Mickelson fired a shot through a narrow opening in the trees, setting up an eventual birdie. Three years later his drive at the par-5 13th hole at Augusta ran through the fairway and up into the pine straw during Sunday’s final round. This time Mackay was in on the plan as Mickelson took dead aim through two towering pines and drilled a 5-iron onto the green with what announcer Nick Faldo called “the greatest shot of his life.”

His willingness to take risks and tempt fate has also cost Mickelson, never more so than at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Leading by one with two to play, his errant drive at the 17th landed in a trash can. After taking a free drop he salvaged a par, but an equally wild drive off the final tee bounced off the roof of a hospitality tent, ending well left of the fairway. Hoping to slice a shot around the trees Mickelson hit into them instead, with his ball advancing less than fifty yards. His next shot landed in a greenside bunker, and by the time Mickelson’s ball found the hole he had recorded a double-bogey, handing the championship to Geoff Ogilvy.

That was one of five runner-up finishes for Lefty at the national championship, stark reminders that for all of his accomplishments much of his career has been defined by what he failed to do. Several times ranked second in the world, Mickelson has never topped the Official World Golf Rankings. Overshadowed by Greg Norman and Faldo in the early years, he’s played in the shadow of Tiger Woods for the last decade and a half. But his failings have humanized him, and that along with his trademark willingness to engage with the fans has always made him one of the most popular golfers in the world.

Mickelson arrived in Arizona after two weeks of uninspired play in Palm Springs and San Diego. But a session with coaches Butch Harmon and Dave Stockton and a switch to a more lofted driver produced dramatic improvement in his game. In Thursday’s opening round he came to the final hole needing one more birdie to become just the sixth PGA Tour player to shoot 59 in competition. His birdie putt was tracking at the hole, but at the last possible moment it wobbled off line, catching the side of the cup and spinning around the hole before staying out. But his 11-under 60 would prove to be the round of the tournament. On Friday he needed only to par the 18th to claim the 36-hole scoring record, but hit his drive in the water and made double-bogey. Still his 60-65 start left him four shots ahead of the field. He expanded that lead to six on Saturday, when he birdied five of the last six holes. His 54-hole total of 189, 20-under par, was again one shot off the Tour record. While Brandt Snedeker tried to give chase on Sunday, there was never any real doubt about the outcome. Three birdies on the back nine and a closing 67 gave Mickelson his third win at the Phoenix Open and the forty-first of the PGA Tour career.

For a player who has always connected so well with the fans, this week’s Tour stop was the perfect location to record a dominant victory. The Phoenix Open is a unique event, the frat party of the Tour’s schedule. On Saturday alone a record 179,000 fans crowded the grounds of the TPC Scottsdale course, a number greater than most Tour stops welcome for an entire week of practice, pro-ams, and play. The par-3 16th hole is lined by grandstands that are topped by luxury suites. More than 13,000 well-lubricated fans happily ignore pleas for quiet from the marshals, cheering good shots and loudly booing bad ones. Padraig Harrington kicked footballs into the stands on Saturday, and there were caddie races from tee to green.

Having gone to college and lived in the area for a dozen years, Mickelson is treated like a hometown hero every year. Never was that more true than this past week. When his 9-iron shot on the 16th came to a stop just over a foot from the hole on Saturday, the roar was so loud that the echoes may still be bouncing around the desert hills. Logic may tell us one thing about the state of Phil Mickelson’s career; but as so often been the case Lefty reminded golf fans that at its best his golf game still transcends mere logic.

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