In Appreciation of Phil

Phil Mickelson captured his third Masters victory Sunday. I will get to his weekend exploits in a later entry. As for now, here were my thoughts this February shortly after the man called “Lefty” opened his season in lackluster fashion. Steve Stricker replaced Mickelson as the game’s no. 2 ranked player and Lefty continued lackluster play throughout the spring. That is, until he made his way down Magnolia Lane and obliterated Augusta National.

Phil Mickelson entered 2010 with hopes of replacing Tiger Woods as the number one player in the world. Two weeks into his season, Steve Stricker has taken over the number two position in the world golf rankings. This should come as no surprise to longtime Mickelson followers. Often times, he has failed to deliver when crucial opportunities present themselves. Those failures to capitalize, often in the most dramatic ways imaginable, have brought a human element to the immensely talented Mickelson. His inability to accumulate wins with the regularity of the machine-like Tiger Woods, coupled with the entertainment he brings to the gallery, has brought many fans to embrace the lovable Lefty.

No golfer brings more excitement to the fan than Phil Mickelson. His scorecard is routinely filled with circles and squares (denoting birdies and bogeys). While Tiger plays with precision and prudence, Phil incorporates a swash buckling style that takes fans on a roller coaster ride. He takes a page out of the playbook of golfing greats Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros and goes for broke (that is he attempts the impossible shot which provides excitement to the gallery and viewers at home). Palmer famously drove the green on the 1st hole of the 1960 US Open on his way to a final round 65 while Ballesteros hit the ball all over the place and made birdie from the car park en route to capturing his first major championship at Lytham in 1979. Phil also has the same charisma and rapport with fans that bring thousands to his gallery. He shares the common touch with the individual that make his supporters feel as if they know the man (and subsequently) make them fierce partisans in the gallery. This same attribute marked the 1960s when Palmer’s faithful created Arnie’s Army and fifteen years later when the swashbuckling Spaniard Ballesteros revolutionized European golf and brought fans on a roller coaster ride as he won three claret jugs and two green jackets.

These men share many attributes; this includes an inability to hit fairways with regularity. The trouble with Phil-in 2010, and throughout his career is the big stick. Through two events this year, he has hit less than half his fairways. Playing from danger has produced tremendous theatre in Mickelson’s career. Who can forget the meltdown at the 72nd hole at Winged foot in 2006? “I’m such an idiot.” Lefty said after a double bogey prevented him from capturing his first U.S. Open and his third straight major. That same river boat gambling instinct which brought him heart ache at the Open, produced a heroic shot out of the woods at the finishing hole at the Colonial in 2008. Facing a seemingly impossible situation Lefty hit a miraculous shot to twenty feet and then drained the birdie putt to capture the tournament by a stroke.

But, Phil the Thrill has never come to grips with his driving difficulties for any long term period of time. He’s tried the two-driver strategy which led to a remarkable 13 shot win at Atlanta in 2006. He parlayed that fortune the next week at Augusta where he won his Masters Tournament by two strokes over Tim Clark. That victory was especially sweet, as Tiger Woods, his longtime rival and nemesis, helped him into the green jacket. Alas, driving difficulties cost him that fateful Open at Winged Foot a few months later. Two years later at Torrey Pines, Mickelson took the driver out of the bag and exclusively used fairway metals off the tee. His performance did not reward this unconventional thinking as Phil missed the cut.

Phil’s mind works in mysterious ways. The great ones see things differently than mere mortals. Take for instance the miracle at Colonial in May 2008. He saw an angle that no one else did; announcers were flabbergasted that he didn’t punch out and use his brilliant short game to get up and down. But, often at the most inopportune time, that talent and creativity produce hubris and lead to disaster. Nowhere was that more apparent than the 2002 Bay Hill Invitational where Mickelson found himself in trouble on the risk-reward par 5 16th.  Phil faced a second shot from the woods after pushing a shot into trouble. Two hundred yards and a green fronted by water separated him from the flagstick. Trailing Tiger by a shot, Mickelson decided to go for broke; invariably, he couldn’t quite pull it off and ended up butchering the hole and losing the tournament. Faced by a group of incredulous reporters after his round, Mickelson remained defiant in his thought process: “The only shot I had was at the green.” In fact, he said, he would gladly go his entire career without winning a major tournament if that entailed him changing his style of play and taking the joy out of the game. The golf world sat incredulous as Mickelson left the press room.

Let’s call this swashbuckling style “creativity run amok.” It has produced unbelievable highs and lows over the years—but ultimate glory has often eluded the 39 year old Mickelson. For all that talent, all those physical gifts, all the money, he has but three major championships. As he enters the last few years of his prime, his followers must wonder…is that all there is? Will a man with more talent than anyone save Tiger ever capture more major championships than… Padraig Harrington?  Will he ever temper his style and play prudently?

Great talent leaves us all wanting more. We want the excitement Phil regularly gives us with the victories and championships that Tiger delivers. In late 2009, Phil seemed poised to make a run at the world’s number one. He tracked him down and captured the season ending Tour Championship at East Lake in October. A month later, he went head to head with Woods at the WGC- HSBC Championship in China and came out victorious. Would this momentum carry over to 2010 success?

So far, the answer is a resounding “No.” Instead of creating news on the course, Mickelson has made it off the links. His decision to use the controversial Ping Eye 2 wedges at the Farmer’s Insurance Open led to many tour members, notably Scott McCarron to question if Phil were cheating the “spirit” of the rules. Mickelson and McCarron had a war of words, which led Lefty to claim his fellow pro had “publicly slandered” him. Lefty positioned himself nicely after fifty-four holes, only to slip Sunday with a 73 that dropped him into a tie for 19th.

A week later Phil found himself in Los Angeles’s famous Riviera Country Club looking for a third straight Northern Trust Open victory. He decided to take the Ping wedges out of the bag, thus ending a week of controversy. However, this did little to improve Mickelson’s golf game. Lefty floundered on the weekend in his title defense and ended with a tie for 45th. This poor result, coupled with Steve Stricker’s fourth victory in his last fourteen events, elevated the Wisconsin into the number two position in the world golf rankings and ended Mickelson’s disappointing fortnight in Southern California.

This week, Mickelson heads up the coast to Carmel, where he will get his first look at a revamped Pebble Beach, host to this year’s U.S. Open Championship. So far, 2010 has been a year of disappointment. In many ways, it has mirrored his career. For all the highlights and memorable meltdowns, many weeks Mickelson is completely off the golfing radar. Last week illustrated that, as he remained a complete non-factor on the weekend. His troubles in L.A. also masked his greatest liability: accuracy off the tee.

As Mickelson begins preparations for the 2010 majors, he does so at the peak of his golfing prime. At 39, he probably has five-to-seven years of top-tier performance. That leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five major championships to cement his golfing legacy. He is a no-doubt hall of famer, clearly the second most talented player of his generation. However, he will not go down in the pantheon of all time greats unless he grabs another couple majors. Ballesteros had five, Palmer captured seven, Watson collected eight, and Hogan won nine.

Mickelson enters a period of great opportunity and great uncertainty. The most dominant player ever has taken an indefinite leave from the game. This is the second such break in two years. In 2008, Woods missed the Open Championship and the PGA. Many expected Mickelson to seize the opportunity and add to his major championship total. Instead, the Irishman Padraig Harrington surprised the golfing world by playing an amazing back nine at Birkdale to win his first major and then, a month later, track down Sergio Garcia, to secure his second straight.

2010 presents a similar opportunity.  Phil still has all the talent in the world and a game that dazzles when it’s on form. Time will tell if Phil can raise his game to the occasion and secure his place among the game’s all time greats.

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