Phil: A Choker?

Back in February, my friend Micah and I had a discussion about whether or not Phil Mickelson choked. That is, did he let majors slip through his grasp?My contention was simple: Phil didn’t choke. Several “disasters” that kept him from claiming these titles occurred on Sunday as he made a frantic charge coming back from the rear. He had to play perfect golf and accumulate several birdies.  Firing at flags, as he had to do, meant any mistake would be magnified under championship conditions.

Mickelson answered many of these questions last night after firing a bogey free final round of 67 at Augusta. Still, questions linger about his decision making. Many point to his second shot from the pine straw at the par 5 13th. That shot helped shape his legacy. It also told golf fans all they need to know about the game’s best left hander. He pulls the trigger and lives with the results.

Let me set the scene. My friend Micah argued that Phil choked and blew several major opportunities. I disagreed. I began the piece by defining the choker. This examined Greg Norman’s mishaps as well as other notable collapses. I then contrasted this to Phil Mickelson’s career. Enjoy.

I agree with most of your analysis- especially your contrast of Phil with TW. However, I think it’s unfair to label him a choke artist. When I think chokers, my mind immediately turns to Greg Norman. Norman had 54 hole leads at ever major championship and captured only two titles (the British in 1986 and 1993).  Everyone remembers Norman’s major collapses, e.g., the 1996 Masters,  the heartbreak at the 1986 PGA, and at Augusta  in 1987.

For my money, his greatest misfortune came at the 1989 Open where Norman shot an unbelievable final round and got into a 3 way playoff. He went out and birdied the first hole. In the entire 100 plus year of the Open—that would have sealed the deal. However, the Open changed its playoff format that year and became a four hole affair. Anyway—Norman and Mark Calcaveccia are neck and neck heading into the last hole, the 18th at Royal Troon. Norman absolutely killed a driver… hit it a country mile…right into fairway bunker. He was incredulous…it never entered his mind that he could reach the bunker with a driver. I think Norman was the best driver of the golf ball in his era.  His Achilles heal was the iron shot wide right that haunted him when pressure came. The two worst blocks came at the 72nd holes of both 1984 US Open and the 1986 Masters. Anyway, Calc makes a birdie to win the thing. Norman takes an X—never finishing the hole.

Ah, the torturous existence of Greg Norman.  Hope all that money helps him sleep through the nightmares that must haunt him at night.

Hell, even Arnold Palmer choked away the 1966 US Open at Olympic. That was a total collapse against Billy Casper. Palmer had a seven shot lead with nine holes to go and then blew up on the back side. He tied Casper after seventy two holes and they went to an eighteen hole playoff the next day. On Monday, Casper thrashed Palmer to claim the title. He is the most underrated player…ever (certainly his achievements were overlooked because he played in the 1960s alongside the great triumvirate of Player, Palmer, and Nicklaus). The King never factored again in a major championship. He retired with a single Open—but oh what a victory it was, defeating the legendary Hogan and the amateur Nicklaus at Cherry Hills in 1960.  Hogan played with Nicklaus in  the third round. Anyway, I forgot what both men shot in that morning 18. Back in those days, the Open ended with a 36 hole Saturday. The USGA didn’t do away with that tradition until 1964, when Kenny Venturi nearly killed himself in a brutally hot day at Congressional.

Anyway, back to Cherry Hills. Hogan, after playing with Nicklaus, said “that kid should have won this thing by ten strokes.” Talk about three generations converging on a memorable  day. Hogan- the man whose swing has  been  emulated by thousands, Palmer- the man who made professional golf a lucrative venture, and Nicklaus- the greatest of them all came together on a memorable afternoon outside Denver. Palmer shot 65 and finished at even par 280 to grab his lone US Open.  But enough about that, back to Phil

Phil is not a choker in my book. Phil’s game just isn’t well suited for two majors. He’s never driven the golf ball straight—a hindrance at the US Open which puts a priority on keeping the ball in the fairway. Plus, his ball flight is the antithesis of what’s needed for a winning formula at windy Open Championship venues. His one good Open came in his major breakthrough season of 2004. He finished third behind Ernie Els and surprise champ, Todd Hamilton. So take out the British—if he ever wins there, I’ll buy you a round at St. Andrews. It’s just not gonna happen.

The tournament that really aggravates Lefty is the US Open.  I don’t think he has any business winning that tournament the way he drives the golf ball. Fortunately, the USGA has made changes in its Open preparations that have been conducive to Phil’s game. Beginning in the early 2000s, the USGA decided to forgo its traditional knee length rough for its championships. Instead, it began graduating its rough…going from short rough to long rough to hay…the further one got from the fairway. This allowed for some risk/reward and brought more shot making into play. For years, if one missed the rough, one took out a wedge and hit back into the fairway…hoping to get up and down for par.  This made for some boring television as guys tried to survive the four day marathon. This change also allowed Phil Mickelson to become truly competitive in the event.

Think about it. Phil Mickelson was a non factor throughout his first decade in the Open. Through his first seven entries, he only factored in the 1995 affair at Shinnecock before fading on the last day.  His Open record began changing with his memorable duel with Payne Stewart in 1999.  Mind you the USGA let the slick, undulating greens rather than the rough, provide the defense for the No. 2 course. Mickelson and Stewart traded birdies on a overcast, drizzly Sunday afternoon. The two men stood at the 18th tee tied for the lead. Mickelson was unable to convert his birdie opportunity. The camera then focused on Payne and his plus fours. Stewart took a practice stroke and hit his putt. It began tracking on line immediately. Seconds later, it dropped and Stewart struck an iconic pose. Dick Enberg’s call summed up the universal reaction. “Payne Stewart is the US Open champion. Oh my!!!”

That week at Pinehurst was the catalyst for changing the USGA’s basic course set up. The organizing body decided to highlight the No. 2 course’s undulating greens. Those greens gave pros fits all week. To hit them and give the world’s best any chance at scoring, the USGA minimized the rough length. Even with little rough, the winning score came at -1. The USGA had found a winning formula.

This transition allowed Mickelson to matter in the national championship. The next decade had him place second a staggering five times. That makes him this generation’s Sam Snead—a wonderful player who comes oh so close but remains unable to win the title. On an entirely unrelated note, Snead won the 1946 Open Championship at St. Andrews. He absolutely hated his Scottish experience, had nothing good to say about St. Andrews, flew home and never entered the tournament again. This year’s Open just happens to be at St. Andrews.

US Open heartbreak will continue for Phil until he drives the ball more consistently. His most notorious meltdown came at Winged Foot in 2006. He came to the 72nd hole, remarkably leading the tournament by a stroke. I say that because Phil couldn’t hit a fairway if his life depended on it that Sunday. I remember sitting there that afternoon saying to myself…if this guy wins this thing it’s got to be one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen. He’s missing both left and right. It would be a miracle if he hit a fairway. Of course, karma being the phenomenon it it, the US  Open gods would not allow Mickelson to get away with his wild ways. It left Phil without the title he craves the most.

I believe this year is Phil’s last best hope at an U.S. Open. The tournament’s is at Pebble Beach, a course Mickelson has won at a couple times. He’ll turn 40 the week of the Open—coming into the last few years of his prime. Future sites include 2011 Congressional—a course he’s never factored on, 2012 Olympic—a non factor at 98 Open there, 2013 Merion—where no professional major has been contested since 1981, 2014 Pinehurst— back to the site of his duel with Stewart, maybe Phil’s last hurrah at an Open.

After looking at this for a few hours, I realize I never answered your question-or mine for that matter. I asserted that he’s not a choker. I made that claim because he’s melted down at the 2006 US Open; to me, one must blow it multiple times to be labeled a choker. Let’s look back at his near misses and look for symptoms of his major woes. Several of them occurred before his major championship breakthrough at Augusta in 2004. I’ve discovered that Phil’s not a choker, simply a Lefty that couldn’t quite seel the deal after trying desperately to make up ground on a Sunday afternoon. These charges that stalled, and ultimately came up short are due to 1) Inconsistent Driving, 2) poor short putting and 3) putting himself out of position through 54 holes. These comebacks required perfection; Phil, sadly, couldn’t quite pull of the heroics. But, let’s look back at that-shall we.

The first great major opportunity came in his duel with Payne Stewart at Pinehurst during the 1999 U.S. Open. Some say it was the 1998 Masters- I don’t. When I think of that tournament, my mind turns to Freddy Couples (54 hole leader), Jack Nicklaus who made a Sunday charge on the front nine at age 58, David Duval- who held a two shot lead at the sixteenth tee only to be outdone by, Mark O’Meara-who became the first Masters champion to birdie 17 and 18 to win the title since Gary Player stole the Masters from Arnold Palmer in 1961. Actually, Palmer choked that away on 18 after accepting congratulations from a fan in the 18th fairway. Palmer, like Mickelson would do in 2006 at Winged Foot, took a six on the home hole to lose a tournament by a single shot. If he had prevailed, he’d have won three straight Masters between 1960-1962 and four out of five if you count his 1958 triumph. Oh yeah, he also claimed the 1964 Green Jacket. He really dominated that place back then.

Anyway, back to the action at Pinehurst in June 1999. Mickelson and Stewart were neck and neck throughout the day. Mickelson held a lead throughout the early stages of the back nine. At the sixteenth, it seemed like the tournament was his to lose. Stewart found himself in trouble off the tee and faced a fifteen foot par putt. If he missed, he’d fall two back with two to play. Calmly, Stewart stood over the putt and nailed the putt dead center. Mickelson, with his only blemish of the day, took a bogey five and stormed off to the next tee box. Despite this blow, Phil stepped onto the 17th tee tied with Stewart. The 17th at Pinehurst is a par 3 of about 180 yards. After enduring Stewart’s blow on the last green, the pressure was clearly on Mickelson’s shoulders. How would the young man respond? Mickelson answered the challenge and hit a dart to five feet. The stage was set for Stewart. How would he respond to Lefty’s counterpunch? Stewart launched a laser right on line that ended up just inside Mickelson’s ball.

Mickelson faced what most assumed was a mere tap in. I mean, Lefty hit these dead center in his sleep. But this was not a time of normalcy or relaxation, the pressure was ratcheting up. For the first time all day, the pressure got to him. Phil pulled the putt and settled for a par 3. Stewart, sensing the opportunity, drained his birdie putt and marched to the eighteenth tee with a one shot lead over his opponent.

We all know the rest. Payne drained a long par putt to win by a stroke. But this illuminated another aspect about the loser and showed a chink in Phil’s armor. This man, gifted with the most exquisite short game on earth, tended to miss shortish putts under major championship pressure. Now, the putt at seventeen was no gimme. It was a good five feet. But, a man who made those putts seem routine flinched when opportunity presented itself.

Fast forward to the 2001 Masters. Phil and Tiger are in the final pairing on Sunday at Augusta. Woods is going for history: the Tiger Slam, four majors in a row. Conventional wisdom gave Elderick the advantage. He’s got the intimidation factor and he’s got a game that’s annihilated Augusta National just four years before. This seemed like another day at the office for Woods, the 54 hole leader over Mickelson. Woods stood only a shot in front of Lefty.

It turned to be anything but. In one of the most electric Sunday afternoons in Masters’ history, Woods, Mickelson, and David Duval lit up the scoreboards as bright as the evening sky on the fourth of July. Birdies rolled in from everywhere. Duval, out in front of the leaders, started the festivities. He grabbed the lead midway through his front nine. I remember excitedly running to my father’s den saying “David Duval is  gonna win the Masters.” Sadly, a balky putter prevented him from capitalizing on short back nine birdie putts at seventeen and eighteen. His day came three months later on a memorable English afternoon at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. And then, he never won again. But, enough about my guy, DD. Mickelson and Woods each played steady golf. As they entered the back nine both men seemed like they could grab the green jacket by sundown. Mickelson simply couldn’t match the firepower of his playing opponent. He played well; they played better. Lefty settled for a third place showing after a Sunday 70 left him a shot back of Duval (67 on Sunday) and three back of Woods (68).

Not exactly a choke job there: simply misfortunate timing. Four months later, back in Georgia, Mickelson missed out on a golden opportunity to capture his first major at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. He and David Toms put on a birdie fest. Toms, emboldened by a Saturday hole in one, stood two shots ahead of Mickelson as Sunday began.

Mickelson began his familiar final day charge. By the back nine, he had positioned himself nicely for a comeback win. On the 15th, Toms took a bogey 5 while Mickelson birdied to tie the Louisianan for the lead. On the next tee, Phil had all the advantage. He hit a disappointing approach to fifty feet and faced a treacherous putt. Emboldened, aggressive, perhaps wanting to stick it to all the naysayers…Mickelson rushed his putt four feet past the hole. With Toms in with a par, Phil faced a do or die putt…and missed. Yet again, a short putt had cost him a share of a major late on Sunday’s back nine.

Both players halved the 17th and Toms went to the eighteenth one up. There, the pressure got to him. His wayward drive left him in a precarious situation on the long par 4 finishing hole. Faced with two hundred plus yards over water, Toms decided to lay up and rely on his sterling short game to get up and down. Seeing that, Mickelson sensed his opportunity. He hit a fine shot to 20 feet.

Toms hit a poor wedge shot, barely inside Mickelson’s ball—but on a different line. Phil had his shot with a makeable putt that would force Toms into a do or die eighteen footer. Mickelson struck a great putt that just quite didn’t drop; disappointed, he tapped in and set the stage for Toms.

David Toms calmly struck his two hundred sixty fourth shot of the week. Once it started rolling, there wasn’t any doubt. Dead center perfect. Another nail in Lefty’s heart.

Mickelson’s 265 shots would have won him any other major tournament in history, just not the 2001 PGA. Despite this heartbreak, a disappointing trend had developed. Mickelson blinked on short putts under the heat of major championship Sundays.

This became readily apparent the next year at Ponte Vedra Beach. Though not a major, the PLAYERS is a tournament all pros desperately want to win. If for nothing else, you get a big fact check…the richest on tour, as well as a chance to claim a W against the most impressive field in golf. That Saturday, Mickelson seemed primed to make a run at his first Players’ title. Instead, his putting demon popped up out of nowhere and bit him in the ass. On the eleventh, Phil faced a six footer for birdie. He missed…aggrasively hitting the ball four feet past the cup. Oh well, no problem here. He stood over his par putt. And missed again. Bogey putt, same story. In sixty seconds, Phil went from birdie to double bogey. Yikes!!!

Phil finished third in the Masters that year, but never really factored. Tiger won—again—seemingly on cruise control. That year, the U.S. Open headed to Long Island and Bethpage Black. After fifty-four holes, Tiger seemed to have another title wrapped up. But something shocking happened, he slipped coming out of the gates. Phil, as usual, made a Sunday charge. Mickelson tied the lead after birdieng the par 5 13th. But, Tiger righted the ship, capitalized on his back nine opportunities and sealed another victory. Once again, Mickelson was the bridesmaid.

Phil’s finally erased his major demons at the Masters in 2004. He went to that year’s US Open on Long Island full of confidence. This time, at Shinnecock Hills, he seemed poised to win the title he coveted most. Mickelson positioned himself nicely after fifty-four holes. He stood two back as he went to the first tee on Sunday. All ready, he knew scores would be high. A windy day on the Long Island links sent scores sky rocketing. The day’s average stood at 78 strokes, eight over par. Mickelson stood undeterred. He played brilliantly through sixteen holes and caught the leader, Retief Goosen. He tee ball on the Par 3 Seventeenth missed the putting surface. He chipped to five feet. Standing over the putt, he must have been supremely confident. After all, he was now a Masters champion who was on the verge of grabbing his second straight major. But, those old short putting woes bit yet again. Phil three jacked from five feet and ended up two behind winner Retief Goosen. Despite a brilliant Sunday 71, fans once again left with a bitter taste in their mouths.

After fourteen hundred words, I guess my diagnosis is this. Despite immense talent, an incredible short game, an ability to hit any shot at any time… for crying out loud, he mastered the flop shot which brought hell to us double digit handicaps and famously hit a shot behind his back, Phil seems to have two problems. He misses short putts under the heat of Sunday back nines. And, he misses fairways with an alarming frequency. Also, like Arnold Palmer, he makes routine Sunday charges. Those comebacks are thrilling—but he seems to bite off more than he can chew. They demand perfection; Phil’s Sunday meltdowns are like the beautiful girl with exquisite skin that has a single blemish. We forget the beautiful and exquisite part and only remember the big, oozy pimple.

Again, remarkably, Phil has posted solid scores in his Sunday mishaps. He only posted a score over par on the windy, over the top conditions at Shinnecock in 2004. Most of the time, Phil makes a single error and the other guy capitalizes. All too often, that foe has been the greatest finisher the game has ever seen. But is that choking, I just don’t think so. You don’t choke when you’re storming from behind. You just miss out and become known as the Little Lefty that Couldn’t.

Phil has won three major championships. He had sole possession of the lead entering the Sunday of his 2006 Masters triumph while sharing the lead after 54 holes in his 2004 Masters and 2005 PGA victories. So Phil, get a share of the lead, keep the ball in the fairway, and make your short putts. It’s quite elementary, when you think about it.

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