One bad hole hasn't spoiled Mickelson's outlook

Posted: April 05, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. - I am such an idiot.

Maybe it's the line that could end up defining Phil Mickelson's career. Or not. At this point it's pretty much up to him.

Those were, after all, his words. Right after he stuck a shiv in his own gut. Or was it a lob wedge?

He had stood on the 72nd hole of last June's U.S. Open needing a par 4 to win his third straight major. Even a bogey 5 would have left him in an 18-hole playoff the following day. Instead he made six and left Winged Foot wondering where it all went wrong.

Perhaps he really was idiotic for using a driver off the tee and fading it off a hospitality tent. Or maybe it was when he chose to use a three-iron for his next shot, instead of wedging safely back out onto the fairway, and clipped a tree branch some 40 yards in front of him. Or maybe it was the shot after that, which found a bunker left of the green. From there, double bogey actually wasn't such a horrible score. Just a losing one.

And just like that, a season that was shaping up as a possible all-timer understandably turned into a summer of indifference.

Mickelson, who lost some weight during the winter, insisted the meltdown was totally behind him. Then, after a slow start, he went out and won at Pebble Beach. The next week, at the Nissan Open, he almost won again, before making a bogey on the final hole of regulation and the third hole of the playoff with Charles Howell. Since then, he hasn't done much. Which brings us to this week, where he's the defending Masters champion.

If there's any major where Phil has a chance to beat the No. 1 player on the food chain, this figures to be it. He finally won the first of his three majors at Augusta National 3 years ago. He's also finished in the top seven on seven other occasions. The question now, though, is which Phil is going to show up. Maybe he's not even certain.

"Do I look tense?" he asked the other day. "[Last April] I can't think of a time I've felt more comfortable or more relaxed going into a final round. It's a course I feel good on. But so does Tiger [Woods]."

Pertinent point.

"I've had to overcome tough losses in the past," Phil went on. "Certainly [Winged Foot] was a tough one. But losing the PGA in '01 after 3-putting 16 [in the last round] was probably the hardest. I thought it was harder because I had not won a major at the time. Didn't know for sure if I could do it . . .

"I'm not really thinking about the U.S. Open as much as I'm trying to defend my Masters championship. So it wasn't as big of a confidence killer, if you will."

Maybe that's really him talking. Or it could be his sports psychologist. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Only he knows the extent of the demons.

Someone asked Woods, the guy Phil and everyone else continues to chase, how he would have handled such an implosion.

"I don't know," he said. "I guess you try and live and learn. You learn from your mistakes as best you can and you apply them to the very next event. Doesn't have to be the next major. Has to be the next event . . . so it doesn't happen again."

Did we mention that Tiger's now going for his third straight major? For the third time in his career. Or that he's going for his fifth green jacket.

Tiger and Phil have combined to win six of the last eight majors. In fact, the only one they haven't won in that span is the U.S. Open. But Tiger came in second in 2005, while Phil was obviously a runner-up 10 months ago. In other words, you almost can't hold a major without picking one of them. Especially in April. The two have won five of the last six Masters. It's almost like Jack and Arnie in the '60s.

This time, one's stalking history. The other's liable to go either way. Starting immediately.

"Dealing with good and bad is just part of everyday life, especially in golf," Mickelson explained. "You have to deal with failure so often, in an individual sport. One out of 156 guys is usually all that wins. It's just part of the game.

"I'm not trying to downplay [the Open debacle] any. It stung. It also has challenged me to improve in certain areas, specifically driving, so that it doesn't happen again. Just like in '01. The first thing [short-game coach Dave] Pelz and I did [after that] was start working on lag putting. And that helped me win the Masters last year especially, because I had a lot of long putts that I was able to two-putt. Had that loss in '01 not occurred, I might not have focused on the certain drills to improve on my lag putting and may not have won [here]."

Sure sounds sensible enough. But unless he goes out and makes himself a factor again, it's only words. And you know how that works.

"It's fun to try and get your game up for each major," he said. "Doesn't always go the way you want to. [But] it's what every player likes to take on."

You make the call. *

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