'Old Phil' Is Back!
by JIM LITKE
June 18, 2006 10:22 PM
His million-dollar talent was undermined one more time by a temperament that wasn't worth a dime.
Remember the Phil Mickelson who waited for the critical moment in the biggest tournaments to try shot after reckless shot, seemingly for no other reason than to prove it could be done?
Well, he's back.
"I still am in shock I did that," Mickelson said after making a double bogey 6 on the final hole to lose the U.S. Open on Sunday. "I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot."
He'll get no argument on that.
Over Mickelson's shoulder, no more than a wedge shot away, the shadows began creeping across the 18th green at Winged Foot. There, Aussie Geoff Ogilvy held up the gleaming silver trophy and watched the last bit of light glisten off its surface.
He seemed to be trying to catch his reflection in it, perhaps to see on which cheek good fortune had planted that big, fat, wet kiss.
"I think I was the beneficiary of a little bit of charity," Ogilvy said. "I think I got lucky."
His luck, beyond holing a chip shot at the 17th for an improbable par, was playing against the old Phil, the one who said "I just can't believe I did that" three more times during an interview that lasted barely five minutes.
Until Mickelson broke an 0-for-42 slump in the majors by waltzing off with the green jacket at the 2004 Masters, his arrival marked one of the subplots at each of golf's big four tournaments. Mickelson would come into the interview room after a practice round and treat the session like an exercise in psychoanalysis.
As the drought lengthened, Mickelson vowed to continue playing aggressively one time, then the next time to play conservatively. The time after that, he promised to forget the past, and the time after that to feed off it. He was tagged the Greg Norman of his generation, a golfer whose ability to find new ways of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was matched only by the inventiveness of his latest alibi.
All that changed in Norman's case after he blew a six-shot lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters. He beat himself up so thoroughly afterwards that reporters who were there hardly felt the need to pile on. Mickelson tried to borrow that page from Norman's book, too. But he didn't stick around long enough to give a full accounting, fielding a few questions outside the clubhouse before heading for the parking lot.
"This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won," he said. "I came out here a week or two ago in the evenings, just spending the evenings working on the last four holes, thinking that I would just need to make four pars, that there's a good chance if I can just make four pars on Sunday I could do it. I made a good par on 15, bogeyed 16 and doubled 18.
"So it hurts because I had it in my grasp and just let it go," he added. "As opposed to somebody making a long putt or what have you."
The Mickelson who arrived at Winged Foot had us fooled. Just as he had for his two Masters wins and last summer's PGA Championship, he came armed with spreadsheets and graphs from his past performances in the majors. Then he carried on about how he tailored the technology in his bag to fit each course, like some kind of pop-up ad for the golf manufacturing business. He carried two drivers at Augusta and four wedges here - it all sounded so up-to-the-minute.
But the real difference was supposed to be Mickelson's maturity, the way he tempered those go-for-broke impulses with real information. Short-game guru Dave Pelz, one of his coaches, explained it this way to Golf World magazine recently:
"Phil Mickelson the man isn't any different. He (still) likes to challenge the odds and do things that are difficult to do. Now, he's basing his decisions on accurate statistics. We have gone through a number of steps that provide him with enough information to know what his chances are."
He had all of those stats in his head when he pulled out the driver on 450-yard, par-4 18th. He had hit exactly two of the 13 previous fairways with it, none of them on the back nine.
"I didn't have a 3-wood," he said. "I carried only a 4-wood. I felt like if I hit 4-wood and missed the fairway, I'd be too far back to ... be able to chase one down there. I just tried to go to that little bread-and-butter carve slice, like I used at Augusta and some other holes, and over-cut that, too."
So he tried it again on his next shot, this time from a bare lie alongside a pavilion with a 3-iron in his hands, and overcut that, too. It hit a tree and sliced all of 25 yards off his task. He put the shot after that into a bunker and, needing to get down in two to force a playoff, took three more to finally the ball in the hole.