Phil Mickelson induces many emotions, but boredom is not one of them, which we were reminded of yet again during the melodrama at last week's Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, Calif. Mickelson made his feverishly anticipated season debut at Torrey Pines, returning to a Tour in desperate need of his star power and good-guy virtues. For a couple of days it was a veritable love-in, beginning with Mickelson's bighearted performance in a pretournament press conference and then during a lively first round that was given worshipful saturation coverage by Golf Channel. But then the story began to turn, all because of Mickelson's typically iconoclastic decision to play a 20-year-old Ping Eye2 wedge, thus exploiting a loophole in the USGA's new condition of competition, which requires smaller grooves with more rounded edges. In last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle, Scott McCarron huffed, "It's cheating, and I'm appalled Phil has put it in play." That's life in the 24-hour news cycle: In one day Mickelson had gone from saving golf to ruining it.
Following his second round, Phil was advised of McCarron's comments, and Mickelson parsed his words like a seasoned barrister, cleverly aligning himself with McCarron in declaring the USGA grooves edict "ridiculous" and the Eye2 loophole "nuts" but strongly defending his use of the controversial wedge. (For the record, four other players at Torrey used the old Eye2.) "It's not up to me or any other player to interpret ... the spirit of the rule," Mickelson said. "I understand black and white. And I think that myself or any other player is allowed to play those clubs because they're approved. End of story." On Saturday morning the PGA Tour tried to quell the catfight with a statement reminding "players, fans and the media" that a series of legal settlements from the early '90s had grandfathered any Eye2s manufactured before April 1, 1990, and that any intimations that using the clubs violated the rules of golf are "inappropriate at best." Yet after a scrappy third round that left him four strokes back, Mickelson came out swinging, stewing about having been "publicly slandered" before adding, darkly, "because of that I have to let others handle it now."
All the bickering overshadowed Mickelson's work between the ropes. His ball striking was erratic throughout the first three days, which he attributed to overswinging because he was too "amped up" for his debut. Still, he cobbled together rounds of 70-67-70 thanks to a short game in midseason form. On Sunday he let the tournament get away on the first three holes, bogeying each with a series of wild shots and a missed gimme on the 2nd hole. Mickelson's 73 left him in 19th place, five shots behind winner Ben Crane. Afterward Mickelson chose to focus on how he turned his round around: He was two under par after his opening trainwreck. "The last 13, 14 holes I hit a lot of good shots," Mickelson said. "I'm excited because my game is feeling not as rusty as it looks."
Now he moves up the coast to this week's Northern Trust Open at Riviera, where he'll be going for a threepeat at Hogan's Alley, and then to Pebble Beach, to chase a fourth Clambake title and do reconnaissance for the U.S. Open. For the first time in his roller-coaster career Mickelson looks ready to contend every time he tees it up, thanks in part to some uncharacteristic hard work in the winter. In the past Mickelson had shut it down during his long off-season and played his way into form during the West Coast swing, but he spent most of this January grinding on his game with his stable of instructors and equipment technicians. There is a new urgency for the onetime boy wonder, who turns 40 this June. With a nod to the indefinite absence of Mickelson's longtime nemesis, Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan says, "We know how motivated Phil is this year. He senses this is his opportunity to step up and be the man. He relishes it, I'm sure."
With his 37 career victories, Mickelson is a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer, but there are some significant holes on his resume: He has never been No. 1 in the World Ranking or won a money or a scoring title. And he hasn't added to his total of three major championships since he won the 2006 Masters. This is clearly Mickelson's moment, and he's not trying to downplay it. "I expect this year, with or without [Woods's playing], to be one of the best years of my career," Mickelson says.
At Torrey he was practically whistling while he worked, at least until McCarron shot off his mouth. During the first round Phil Mickelson Sr. was asked if he had ever seen his son having so much fun on a golf course. "Maybe when he was a boy first discovering the game," he said. "But that would be it."