Phil Mickelson has plenty of reasons for optimism

Friday February 27th, 2009
Phil Mickelson beat Zach Johnson, 1 up.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Through two days in the sun-dappled desert, Phil Mickelson has shown why he is golf's reigning conundrum.

On Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he raced out to a 4-up lead with five holes to play against Angel Cabrera, nearly gave the match away, and then scrapped his way to victory on the first playoff hole.

On Thursday, Mickelson welcomed Zach Johnson to the first tee, cruised to that same 4-up lead with five holes to play, and held on to subdue Johnson on the 18th hole.

"I hearted it out there at the end," Mickelson said afterwards, repeating his line from last week in Riviera, where he led by five shots, trailed by two and defeated Steve Stricker by a stroke.

In the end, it is the victory that counts, and Mickelson is on to the Round of 16 with plenty of reasons for optimism: for three straight rounds of golf, including his final round at Riviera, Mickelson has walked off the course victorious; he knows the subtleties of desert golf as well as anyone; and Tiger Woods is gone.

Can Mickelson stack another win on top of his take at last week's Northern Trust Open?

"I feel like I'm getting better each day," said Mickelson, who will face Stewart Cink on Friday. "I drove the ball well today. I hit a bad tee shot on the second hole, and after that I started to hit some good tee shots."

Whether Mickelson's playing style gives you thrills or heart palpitations, he wins and loses in the same fashion, taking risks, going with his gut, and walking the line between brilliance and disaster.

On Wednesday, it was an ill-advised driver into the desert after Cabrera had already hit into trouble. On Thursday, back-to-back lip outs on short putts nearly felled him, until he mustered a sweet 3-wood off the 18th tee, a solid iron, and took out Johnson with two putts. Mickelson had beaten the 2007 U.S. Open champion and followed up by defeating the 2007 Masters champion.

Through two decades on the PGA Tour, Mickelson's style has led to 35 wins, including three majors, and a few heartbreaking losses, none greater than the 2006 United States Open at Winged Foot. The critic says Mickelson should have won more. The supporter says he has won plenty. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

If anything, Mickelson has shown resourcefulness and mettle after his uninspired start at Torrey Pines, the FBR Open and Pebble Beach.

After shooting a second-round 72 in Los Angeles, he flew his coach Butch Harmon out to take a look at his swing. A third-round 62 followed.

But the scene that may be talked about for awhile was the one Tuesday morning before a practice round at the Match Play. Few players beat Tiger Woods to the driving range before a practice round at dawn, but there was Mickelson and Harmon at the earliest daylight, hitting shots long before Woods stuck a tee in the ground.

As a large gathering of reporters and photographers waited for Woods, the stage belonged to Mickelson. When Woods finally arrived, Mickelson could sense him without even turning around, the murmurs and camera clicks were so loud. Woods looked up and saw Mickelson on the end of the range.

It was as close as the game of golf gets to Ali and Frazier touching gloves before a fight.

It's a shame that Woods (who fell 4 and 2 to Tim Clark) and Mickelson won't square off in the Match Play this week, but they will meet sometime soon, perhaps at Doral, maybe at Augusta.

There is little doubt that Woods will bounce back, ready to reprise his role as the game's Alpha male.

The question is, will Mickelson be there waiting for him?

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