The Final Frontier

Less Filling Phil? Mickelson says he's slimmed down and hopes improved fitness will lead to better play late in the season.
Marc Feldman/

Phil Mickelson may have shed 20-25 pounds of fat, and gained 10-15 of muscle in the off-season, but he still wears a lot of black (it's slimming, don't you know). He still combs his hair straight back, Pat Riley style, and still talks science anytime, anywhere. After pounding his drive down the third fairway at the Classic Club at the Bob Hope on Friday, he turned to one of his amateur playing partners and said, "So hear me out," before expounding on the virtues of ethanol vis-a-vis our national energy conundrum.

He knocked his ball on the green, poured in his 20-foot birdie putt, and after barely a fist pump, kept right on talking current events. On the par-5 fourth hole he hit a 297-yard rocket off the tee, and a 249-yard fairway wood to 13 feet behind the hole, and made the eagle putt. Ethanol could wait; this called for knuckle-bumps all around.

In other words, the Hope may have temporarily turned into the British Open last week, when snow fell in Malibu, but Mickelson is still Mickelson. In fact he likened Palm Springs on Sunday to Maui in January (too windy), which is why he no longer plays the Mercedes. In an early-week press conference he faulted, as much as his swing, his gear for the pesky left-to-left drive that, among other indignities, gave the U.S. Open to Geoff Ogilvy. Having worked with his coach Rick Smith and Callaway club technicians, Lefty proclaimed, "I really think that shot is going to be eliminated most of the time." We'll see.

Mickelson has always been hard to pin down, and he was last week. He went 3-over-par for his first four holes, then turned it around during an opening-round, 2-under-par 70. He didn't look ready to win, as I predicted he would, but then again, with a winning score of only 17-under, this didn't look like the Hope.

The real test comes this week at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, where Tiger Woods will begin his 2007 season. Without have to baby-sit three amateur partners, and presumably without the bone-chilling cold, Mickelson will be free to focus. Both past champions at Torrey, he and Woods each feel some ownership of the event, since Lefty is a lifelong San Diegan, and Woods has owned the course as a kid (Junior World) and as a pro (nine top-10 finishes in nine starts, including six top-threes and four Ws).

But while Tiger's legacy is secure whether or not he surpasses Jack Nicklaus, Mickelson has much to prove.

Can his new physique see him through the last day of the Presidents Cup on September 30? "I don't feel as though I stood up physically [in 2006]," he said last week.

Did Phil the Spill's Winged Foot crash landing leave any permanent damage, the kind that affects scoring on Sunday afternoon at Augusta? "Dealing with failure is part of the game," he said. "I deal with it 90 percent of the time."

Most of all, Phil's got to prove he can take down Tiger, at least once. He's got the better of his nemesis before, most notably at the 2006 Masters and 2000 Tour Championship, but never head-to-head. Vijay Singh has done it. So have Darren Clarke, Costantino Rocca and Hal Sutton, among others. Mickelson has not.

History will show that his standing relative to Woods took the biggest hit at Winged Foot, where pundits were already anointing him as the de facto number one. Had he made par on 18, there would have been no doubt, and you have to wonder whether Woods would have then racked up six straight wins, including the British Open and PGA.

With 29 victories and three majors, Mickelson could quit today and be remembered as one of the top five players of his era, with Singh, Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. He is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, obviously. Is that enough? Mickelson has always said his family comes first, and his aw-shucks vibe suggests he doesn't live or die with each shot. But at 36 he also seems to feel a sense of urgency. He seems to know his legacy won't depend on how many times he wins the Hope.

Lee Trevino and Tom Watson are known for trumping Jack Nicklaus, Billy Mayfair for beating Woods in L.A. (the "1" in Tiger's 10-1 playoff record, 10-2 if you count his loss to Padraig Harrington at the Dunlop Phoenix in November). As much as his two PGA titles and one green jacket, Singh will be remembered for taking Woods's top ranking, albeit briefly, in 2004. Mickelson, Mayfair's friend, seems to realize he'll ultimately be measured against the best, too.

"It was fun," Mickelson said of the day he looked Woods in the eye and nearly won, at the 2005 Ford Championship at Doral (now the WGC-CA Championship), or the time he nearly took over Woods's number one ranking, or maybe a composite of would-haves, should-haves and could-haves. "It was fun," he continued, "and I certainly want to get back to that level where I'm able to compete in each tournament, compete against Tiger week-in and week-out. But again, it's not easy. He's a remarkable player." It's not easy? He's a remarkable player? That's pretty well established. But so, too, is Mickelson a remarkable player. It's time for him to stop hedging his bets and get on with the business of becoming a legend.