This story appeared in the Aug. 22, 2005, edition of Sports Illustrated.
Phil Mickelson won his second major title last week, and as expected, it wasn’t easy. Before he could claim the PGA Championship, Mickelson first had to kick it away, steal it back, wobble, recover, waver, recharge, dodge a few lightning bolts, fend off a big-name leader board and finally, gloriously, summon a nerve-jangling birdie on the 72nd hole to prevail at one of the sport’s most venerated courses, Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. When the weather-interrupted final round ended late Monday morning, with Lefty’s sublimely delicate up-and-down bird from the long grass flanking the green on the 554-yard par-5 18th hole, Mickelson had validated his breakthrough at last year’s Masters and elevated his career to another class entirely. A lot of players have won one major–113, to be exact–including recent one-hit wonders Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis, and famous flukes like Orville Moody and Jack Fleck. To win a second places Mickelson alongside Hall of Famers Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Johnny Miller and Greg Norman, among others.
The gritty victory at the PGA may have lacked the style points and sheer drama of the walk-off birdie that won the Masters, but Mickelson’s triumph, in triple-digit temperatures, marked the continued maturation of his game and provided further evidence that at 35 his best golf is still in front of him. During the brutal years when Mickelson had to continually explain how he had become the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major, he would often say that his aim was not to win a major but to win a bunch of them–he just had to get the first one out of the way. Now he is halfway to a career Grand Slam. “I’ve only had two for an hour or two,” he said at the champion’s press conference. “But it’s a long-term goal to get the other two.”
With his victory, Mickelson got the added satisfaction of denying Tiger Woods another piece of history. Woods arrived at the PGA looking to become the first player to win three majors in a season twice, which would have reaffirmed the kind of dominion over the game that he enjoyed in 2000. Given Woods’s Nicklaus fetish he seemed like a good bet at Baltusrol, where the Bear won two of his four U.S. Opens, in 1967 and ’80. Also playing to Woods’s strength was the macho setup: At 7,392 yards Baltusrol was the longest par-70 in PGA Championship history. Thanks to upgraded equipment and a more explosive swing, Woods has reestablished himself this year as the longest hitter among the game’s elite players, but with that awesome distance has come an increasing propensity for foul balls. During his first-round 75, which left him in 113th place, Woods hit only six fairways and compounded his miseries by taking 35 putts. After making three straight bogeys early in his second round, Woods was seven over par and staring down the barrel of his first missed cut at a major as a pro, but he played the back nine in three under, including a birdie on the 36th hole to make the cut on the number (four over). That left him 12 strokes in back of the leader, Mickelson, who was happy not to have to tangle with Tiger. At last year’s Masters, Woods was nine strokes off Mickelson’s lead heading into the final round, and of the cushion Phil memorably said, “It doesn’t suck.” Last Friday, Mickelson said of Woods’s struggles, “If you’re looking for me to shed a tear, it’s not going to happen.”
He was too busy flashing his perma-grin. After an opening 67 Mickelson surged to a three-stroke lead on Friday with a 65 that featured seven birdies and an eagle. This sent the throng into such a tizzy that Steve Elkington described it as “probably the loudest I’ve ever heard at a golf tournament.”
Mickelson first emerged as America’s sweetheart at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. The rowdy New York gallery adopted him mostly out of necessity. Back then the imperious Woods was lording over the game, and at Bethpage, Mickelson was the only player who put up any kind of fight, ultimately finishing second by three strokes. At last year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, on the east end of Long Island, Mickelson dazzled the crowds with a heroic back-nine charge on Sunday. Baltusrol is a quick ride in a Town Car from Manhattan, and last week The New York Times anointed Mickelson “New York’s pro.” At Baltusrol he played shamelessly to the Jersey faithful, summoning the same kind of love he got at Bethpage.
On the sixth hole of his first round Mickelson’s drive clipped a tree, forcing him to play his second shot down the adjacent 17th fairway. That left him a wedge into the green that he hit directly over the heads of the swollen gallery. After sticking the shot to five feet Mickelson pulled a Hale Irwin and knuckle-bumped his way to the green, drawing deafening roars. “I love the feel that the people here provide,” Mickelson said afterward. “It’s just an amazing feeling from a player’s point of view to have that kind of support.”
The cheers helped inspire in Mickelson the kind of passion that had been missing for most of the last six months, during which he was a nonfactor in the preceding three majors. The swoon had its origins in an equipment change (to Callaway clubs and balls) that Mickelson made in the fall of 2004. He was seeking more endorsement money and more distance off the tee, and he got both, in excess. Armed with his new sticks, Mickelson began this season with the most dominant run of his career. In back-to-back wins at Phoenix and Pebble Beach he dropped a 60 on the TPC of Scottsdale and then torched venerable Spyglass for a bogeyless 62. These overpowering victories left Mickelson drunk with distance and badly impaired his judgment. The story of his breakthrough victory at the 2004 Masters was Mickelson’s newfound restraint; at Augusta he employed exclusively a high, soft cut off the tee, which cost him 20 yards of distance but effectively kept him out of trouble. The so-called New Phil went back to his old ways during the first three majors of 2005, and he bashed his way to irrelevance at each. Mickelson is such a know-it-all that the other players have given him the sardonic nickname Genius, but he clearly outsmarted himself by abandoning the cut shot that won him the Masters.
During the practice rounds at Baltusrol, Mickelson had the Eureka! moment to go back to hitting nothing but his cut off the tee, even on dogleg-rights that would normally favor a draw for a lefthander. Given Mickelson’s success at the ’04 Masters and at Baltusrol, his swing coach, Rick Smith, says, “Maybe he should just hit the cut all the time.” You think?
Of course, even a throttled-back Mickelson can’t help but produce drama. If Woods has a three-stroke lead midway through a major, it’s time to call the engraver. On Saturday at Baltusrol it took Mickelson all of six holes to fritter away his lead, as he made three bogeys and tumbled to five under. He didn’t make another bogey the rest of the way and patched together a 72, but Davis Love III, suddenly resurgent at age 41, caught him at six under after a third straight 68. One shot back was Thomas Bjorn, a Hamlet in spikes who is the brooding prince of Danish golf. During the third round he shot a stunning 63 that tied him with 19 other players for lowest round in major championship history. Two back of Mickelson and Love were Vijay Singh, the defending champ, and Elkington, 42, the oft-injured 1995 PGA Championship winner who may have the prettiest swing in golf. Woods shot a 66 to roar from 62nd place to 20th but was still six back.
On Sunday, Mickelson looked as though he was going to end all the suspense early. The first seven holes are the meat of the Baltusrol layout, and they played especially stout because the final round brought by far the toughest conditions of the week–a stiff breeze and firmer, faster greens. After opening with four pars and a birdie, Mickelson had a three-stroke lead as the other would-be contenders fell away. But Mickelson can make a 30-yard-wide fairway seem like a tightrope. Beginning on number 6 he bogeyed four out of five holes, once again letting everyone else back in the ball game, including, amazingly, Woods. Tiger was a forgotten man after two early bogeys, but he birdied four of his final 11 holes to shoot a 68 and take the lead in the clubhouse at two under.
The relentless Elkington moved into first place with a birdie on the 9th hole that followed eight consecutive pars, and his advantage swelled to two strokes when Mickelson bogeyed the 10th. But Elkington is one of those golf machines who views putting not as an opportunity but an inconvenience, and when he three-jacked at the 11th, his lead was down to one stroke. A two-shot swing propelled Mickelson back atop the leader board as he rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at the 13th hole just as Elk was making bogey out of a fairway bunker on 15. As the final twosome played the 14th hole, there were five other groups on the course. Mickelson was one up on Elkington and Bjorn, and two ahead of Love, Singh and Woods. With par-5s looming at 17 and 18, the 87th PGA was speeding toward a thrilling finish, but the greed and arrogance of CBS and the PGA of America pulled the plug on the show.
In an effort to attract the larger TV ratings of an evening audience, the last twosomes were sent out at 3 p.m. for each of the final two rounds. In the Saturday twilight Mickelson had trouble seeing the breaks on the final few holes and afterward beseeched tournament officials to move up the tee times. This request was denied, and ignored, too, was a foreboding forecast for Sunday-afternoon lightning storms, which should have spurred the tournament and the network suits to send the players out early. The first lightning strikes arrived around 2:30 p.m., delaying play for 39 minutes and setting up a race against the darkness. When another storm rolled in, the final round was suspended for good at 6:35, forcing a morning restart for all the marbles.
One by one all but Mickelson shrank from the challenge on Monday. Singh had all night to fret about his 12-footer for par on the 16th hole, and he blew it to end his bid. Bjorn began the restart with an indifferent chip from behind the 15th green, resulting in a bogey, and blasted a wild approach into the 18th hole that hampered his chances for a tying birdie. Jittery drives on 17 and 18 by Love and Elkington left each with hollow par-par finishes.
So it all came down to Mickelson. He bogeyed the par-3 16th hole out of the sand but was otherwise flawless, hitting the fairways on the three other remaining holes with gorgeous cut shots. Of the drive at 18, Mickelson’s careerlong caddie, Jim MacKay, would say later, “That was the single best full swing I’ve ever seen him make at the ball.” Standing on the 18th tee Mickelson was tied at three under with Bjorn and Elkington. His drive on 18 settled near a plaque commemorating Jack Nicklaus’s famous one-iron to 22 feet in 1967, and en route to his ball, seeking some extra karma, he paid homage to the plaque. But Mickelson’s approach wasn’t quite as artful as Nicklaus’s. His three-wood from 247 yards finished in thick rough four paces short and right of the green.
When Mickelson was 10, his father built a putting green complete with a bunker in the family backyard in San Diego. Sizing up his chip, Phil flashed back to endless shots he had hit as a kid. He made an aggressive, fearless swing, and an instantly famous flop cozied to less than two feet. Happiness is a tap-in to win the PGA Championship.
Like that of Nicklaus before him, Woods’s obsession with the majors has made them the only measuring stick that matters on Tour, and by that standard Mickelson–with two triumphs in as many years–can now claim his place as Woods’s primary challenger. On Monday, Mickelson avoided any questions about Woods, but Charles Barkley (at Baltusrol for TNT) has a unique take on the dynamic between the two rivals. Barkley is a certified Friend of Tiger, but he has been Mickelson’s playing partner longer–as Barkley puts it, “ever since Phil was chasing [then girlfriend, now wife] Amy around when she was a cheerleader” for the Phoenix Suns, in the early 1990s. “Phil’s the most talented golfer I’ve ever played with,” Barkley declares, “but if Phil worked as hard as Tiger, he’d be there every week too.”
This is a common critique, but Mickelson has actually become something of a gym rat in the last couple of years, working out four to six times a week and traveling with his own trainer, Sean Cochran, who put Phil through the paces last week at a gym near Baltusrol. Cochran is only mildly defensive about the barbs concerning his client’s unchiseled physique. “It’s not about how you look wearing a Speedo,” Cochran says. “We’re doing cross-specific exercises to build his body for golf.”
They may be paying off. On his way to his second major Mickelson conquered not only the brutal heat but also the strain of having to sleep on the lead four nights in a row. There may be no stopping him now.