Phil Mickelson was signing autographs at Riviera on Sunday evening when a fan approached with two paper plates concealing a surprise. When Mickelson removed the top plate his eyes opened wide: There sat a clump of dirt with roots hanging from the bottom and bright-green grass sprouting from the top.
"It's your divot from the 8th hole," said the fan, offering Phil a memento from his first victory since last May. Mickelson declined the gift. He was already thinking about a different green prize.
To watch Mickelson at Riviera was to see a golfer grind through 72 holes sometimes painfully, sometimes beautifully with the primary goal of preparing for the Masters and a bid for a third green jacket. As if winning consecutive Northern Trust Opens was not a big enough accomplishment (seven players, including Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, have accomplished the feat in the 84-year history of the event), Mickelson seemed most pleased that the atmosphere mirrored the tension of a major championship.
With Fred Couples riding shotgun, as he did at the 2006 Masters, Riviera served as Mickelson's proving ground, as well as an ideal bridge to the return of Tiger Woods. Every aspect of Mickelson's game was revealed during the course of the week. There was red-hot Phil in an opening eight-under 63; a wild-off-the-tee Phil last Friday, when he shot a 72; a rejuvenated Phil thanks to a quick house call by swing doctor Butch Harmon during Saturday's scorching 62; and, finally, a hang-on-for-dear-life Phil on Sunday, when he shot another 72.
After his five-stroke lead had evaporated midway through the final round, Mickelson put away the driver and opted to use a new three-wood off the tee, and that helped turn things around. Mickelson said he also put aside any swing thoughts and simply focused on the target. He erased a two-shot deficit to Steve Stricker by making birdies on the par-3 16th and the par-5 17th, then rolling in a six-footer for par at the par-4 18th after Stricker had bogeyed. Two years ago, leading this tournament by a stroke as he stood on the 18th tee, Mickelson pushed his drive, made bogey and lost a playoff to Charles Howell.
"I'll take a lot out of this," Mickelson said afterward. "To be able to heart it out on 16 and 17 with birdies, then to make that par on 18 when two years ago I didn't, that meant a lot to me."
Couples, who will captain this year's U.S. Presidents Cup team, played despite difficult circumstances. On the Tuesday of tournament week he learned that his estranged wife, Thais Baker, had died of breast cancer in Santa Barbara, Calif. Couples didn't attend the funeral, he said, because "I'm not really welcome up there, so I decided to play." Nevertheless, the 49-year-old Couples, whose last Tour victory came in 2003, played well enough to win and trailed Mickelson by only a stroke through 71 holes. An all-but-shanked seven-iron approach on the 72nd ended his bid. "I got a little loose and hit a bad shot," he said. "I just didn't give myself a chance."
Instead, it was Mickelson lording it over Riviera again, following Woods's announcement with his own return of serve. In a season with new life, a green jacket waits to be filled.