Tiger Woods was long gone by the time Phil Mickelson won perhaps the second-most important tournament of his career.
Too bad, because if he had stayed he could have pulled a lawn chair out of the trunk, popped open a beer and joined the crowd around the island green on No. 17.
Even then, he might have had trouble recognizing the eventual winner.
Sure, the form was familiar. The guy playing down the stretch with Sean O’Hair was a lefty with a few extra pounds around the middle, a goofy grin, and a caddie named Bones.
Like Mickelson, he smiled at the mothers in the gallery, gave fist bumps to the dads, and handed out balls to the little kids.
Unlike Mickelson, he wasn’t as much fun to watch.
His tee shots found the fairway instead of the trees. He stayed dry and hit greens with relentless regularity. And he didn’t make a boneheaded mistake until the last hole, by which time it had ceased to matter anymore.
Three weeks into the Mickelson makeover, there was little evidence of the Phil we’ve known and sometimes loved. At 36 there’s suddenly a new levelheaded Phil, with a new coach and some lofty new expectations.
“What’s most exciting is I feel like we’re just getting started,” Mickelson said. “This is only week No. 3. I feel like in three months, how much am I going to progress? In three years, where am I going to be?”
Those would have been rhetorical questions in the past because Mickelson, for all his immeasurable talent, has been defined as much by his wild swings and misfortune as he has by his 31 wins and three major championships.
We all remember him, of course, leaping with joy when he won his first green jacket three years ago and the poignant moment he spent on the green with his family.
“Daddy won! Can you believe it?” he asked his daughter.
We found it difficult to believe because we also remember other images, like the one of a shattered Mickelson after he blew the U.S. Open by hitting a horrendous tee shot on the 18th hole at Winged Foot last year.
“I am such an idiot,” Mickelson said.
Many figured the loss would haunt him the rest of his career, though Mickelson publicly shrugged it off as just another bad day at the office. But he hasn’t contended in the three majors since that fateful day, and even a win early this year didn’t hide the fact that he still didn’t feel comfortable in his old game.
At the Masters this year, Mickelson sat at a table in the upstairs dining room before his round with swing coach Rick Smith and short-game guru Dave Pelz. Nobody said much of anything, but the long faces indicated they were in desperate search of some clues.
Unfortunately for Smith, Mickelson came to the conclusion that Butch Harmon had those clues. Harmon, who helped Woods craft his early swing, took over three weeks ago and immediately went to work shortening Mickelson’s backswing to eliminate the shots that have hurt him most.
On display in the final round Sunday, the results were stunning. Mickelson was so under control that he made a tough course look easy, never flinching and never getting into trouble until he almost hit his second shot on No. 18 into the water.
He had only two regrets – that his wife and children weren’t there to celebrate with him, and that the U.S. Open doesn’t start tomorrow.
“I’ve seen an immediate difference in three weeks, and I can’t wait for another three weeks to go by and start getting ready for the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “And another three or four weeks to go by and get ready for the British.”
Thanks to the new Phil, we can look forward to a summer where the prospect of Mickelson and Woods going head to head in three majors is tantalizing. Woods, of course, still holds the upper hand because Mickelson has the burden of having to erase some ghosts at the U.S. Open, and it’s too early to tell if the new swing will last.
But there’s no question he now sees himself capable of doing the kind of things he didn’t see himself doing two months ago when he acknowledged his career would never match that of Woods.
He said as much when he took the flag from the 18th pin, wrote a message on it, and handed it to Harmon.
“Butch, the 1st of many,” it read.
Harmon wasn’t about to disagree with his new pupil, who walked arm in arm with him to the clubhouse.
“You’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Harmon said. “He’s going to get a lot better.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org