As a phenom back in 1991, Mickelson was saddled with the tag of the Next Nicklaus, but he has always had a lot more in common with Palmer. Both have made an intensely personal connection with fans, thanks to an agreeable, approachable manner and a go-for-broke style. They have also been defined as much by their shattering defeats as by their many triumphs. Until last week Mickelson had been 0 for 46 in the majors, in large part because of the real Next Nicklaus: Tiger Woods turned out to be the Bear apparent. With Woods almost clinically winning seven of 11 majors from 1999 to 2002, the deficiencies in Mickelson's game were thrown into sharp relief. He was one-dimensional in his ball striking, employing almost exclusively a hard draw that could turn into a runaway hook. Mickelson loved to bomb it off the tee, accuracy be damned, and he was inclined to fire at every flag, regardless of the consequences. That style worked wonderfully at the Bob Hope Classic but was fatal at the Grand Slam events, where tougher courses with exacting setups extract severe penalties for mistakes. Yet Mickelson defiantly refused to change his approach.
A brutal 2003 compelled him to do some soul-searching. He had failed to win all year for only the second time in his career and plummeted to 15th in the World Ranking. He had slipped to 189th in driving accuracy. At year's end Mickelson took a hard look in the mirror. While the buffed Woods increasingly resembles an NFL safety, Mickelson had the body of a couch potato. Not anymore. Since December he has lost 15 pounds by going bunless at In-N-Out Burger and laying off his beloved doughnuts, as well as by working out six times a week with Sean Cochran, a former strength and conditioning coach for the San Diego Padres who accompanies him to every tournament on Mickelson's Gulfstream.
More important, Mickelson reshaped his swing. Around Christmas, Smith spent five 10-hour days working to quiet Mickelson's lower body and shorten his backswing when hitting his irons, leading to more balance and consistency. They also perfected a reliable fade, sacrificing a few yards for greater control. Mickelson looked like a different player while winning his season debut at the Hope, even (gasp) laying up on a watery par-5 down the stretch. (That he went on to three-putt for bogey was an irony even Mickelson could appreciate.)
Augusta National, though, loomed as the ultimate test. In the previous three Masters, Mickelson had made 60 birdies, while the respective champions combined for 58, but to win he would have to make fewer big numbers. Last week the course's dangerous par-5s were the battlefield where the war played out between the old and new Phil. When, instead of boldly firing at the flag on 13 on Thursday, he conservatively aimed 35 feet left, it was clear that Mickelson was playing a different game than in years past. And when you don't tempt the golf gods, you are rewarded. At 13 on Friday, Mickelson pulled his approach, and it rolled off the green toward Rae's Creek before stopping inches above the hazard, the most momentous Velcro job since Fred Couples's ball stayed up on 12 in 1992. Mickelson turned a would-be 6 into a 4, the key break of the tournament.
For this Masters, Mickelson throttled back in another way, abandoning his trademark flop shot on Augusta National's tight lies and using his putter from off the greens. This wasn't glamorous, but it got the job done. At the 18th on Saturday he got up and down from behind the green with a deft putt off a mound, preserving a bogeyless 69 that gave him his first 54-hole lead in a major.