Mickelson returns to Pebble Beach riding a wave of confidence

Mickelson returns to Pebble Beach riding a wave of confidence

GOOD TIMES: Mickelson shot a 68 in his first round as a pro when Pebble hosted the Open in 1992 and finished 16th there in 2000.
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Phil Mickelson made his professional debut at the 1992 U.S. Open, a cocky 22-year-old with a big, cheesy grin and a rakishly upturned collar. Thanks to a record-breaking amateur career, Mickelson was already being trumpeted as the next Nicklaus when he arrived at Pebble Beach. He didn’t disappoint during the Open’s first round, stuffing his approach shot on the opening hole to a foot and a half. “That wasn’t even the best shot of the day,” Mickelson said recently, a bit wistfully. “On 17 I hit a two-iron to four feet.” His 68 left him two strokes off the lead, and America’s typing class hyperbolized accordingly. “I remember thinking how fun the U.S. Open is,” says Mickelson.


“The next day, not so much.”

During the second round Mickelson needed a birdie at the 18th hole to shoot 81; he missed the cut by five strokes. This whiplash-inducing reversal of fortune was an entirely fitting beginning to Phil’s star-crossed Open career. Over the last 11 years he has finished as runner-up in our national championship a record five times, and the heartbreaks have largely defined Mickelson. Playing at Pinehurst in 1999, as his wife, Amy, was due to give birth to their first child, he was trumped on the final green by Payne Stewart’s iconic putt, a noble near miss that confirmed Lefty’s standing as the best player in the game without a major championship. At Bethpage in 2002, Mickelson bogeyed two holes down the stretch and finished three back of Tiger Woods. Public opinion began to curdle, as it became trendy to question whether Phil was tough enough or dedicated enough to challenge the guy who turned out to be the real next Nicklaus. Two years later Mickelson arrived at baked-out Shinnecock Hills a couple of months removed from his overdue major breakthrough, at the Masters. During a rousing Sunday charge he produced what he called “some of the best golf of my life” but squandered the effort with a messy double bogey on the 71st hole. Still, the near miss confirmed Mickelson as a perennial threat on golf’s biggest stages, and he went on to take the 2005 PGA Championship and the 2006 Masters.

Thus he arrived at Winged Foot for the 2006 Open threatening Woods’s hegemony for the first time as he tried to join Tiger and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three consecutive professional majors. (Bobby Jones’s Grand Slam in 1930, which predated the creation of the Masters, included the U.S. and British Amateurs.) A misadventure in the trees on the 72nd hole cost Mickelson the tournament and his place in history. That fatal double bogey also began the comparisons to Sam Snead, one of the game’s greatest talents who nonetheless lacked the discipline or determination — or both — to win a U.S. Open. (Snead’s triple bogey on the final hole to blow the 1939 Open came to embody his career nearly as much as his record 82 victories.)

In the wake of Winged Foot, Mickelson’s game went into a funk that lasted the better part of three years, and even an overhaul of his swing could not get him back to where he was. The spark that had been missing came by way of some horrific news, as Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009. A month later Phil turned up at the Open and brawled with Bethpage on every shot. But for a few short putts that didn’t drop on the final nine holes, he could have pulled off the storybook victory. Winged Foot may have crushed Mickelson, but this latest runner-up finish at the Open steeled him. In the fall of 2009 he twice beat Woods head-to-head, and Johnny Miller was among the wags who declared Mickelson the game’s best player. And this was before Tiger’s crack-up.

This season Mickelson has just kept coming. He followed up his commanding victory at the Masters with a second-place finish at the Quail Hollow Championship on one of the PGA Tour’s best tracks. Two weeks ago at the Memorial, in his final Open tune-up, he tied for fifth despite an uncooperative putter. (It was the sixth straight tournament he had finished ahead of Woods.) Mickelson is driving the ball longer and straighter than at any time in his career, his distance control with his irons is more precise and his wedge play remains the best in the game, but this latest surge transcends swing mechanics. “I think he is more focused than I’ve ever seen him,” says Tour veteran Kenny Perry. “It’s as if he’s finally realized he can’t let this God-given talent go to waste. Amy’s cancer has focused him, I believe.”

Mickelson is No. 2 in the World Ranking, but only the computers believe that. The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach this week, and for the first time this century a healthy Woods is not the favorite heading into a major. “Right now Phil is the top player out here, especially with what we’ve seen from Tiger,” says J.B. Holmes. “[Mickelson] is playing more aggressively with more nerve and skill than anybody.”
Adds Stewart Cink: “If Phil can keep the ball in play at Pebble, he wins. Simple as that.”

J.J. Henry goes one step further: “The way he is playing, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win by a good margin.”

This will be the fifth U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and each of the first four defined its era. Nicklaus’s victory in 1972 was a monument to brawny ball striking, while Tom Watson stole a win in 1982 with his guile and his wedge. Plodding Tom Kite ground his tail off in windswept conditions in 1992, while Woods’s record 15-stroke victory in 2000 was testament to his overall mastery and began a run of unprecedented dominance. Pebble Beach is the perfect place for Mickelson to join the pantheon, presenting him with the chance to fulfill the promise of that long-ago 68. “It’s certainly one of my favorite Open venues, although I’ll admit I’m biased because it was my pro debut,” he says. “It would be special to win there for a lot of reasons. I don’t want to look past the U.S. Open, but I know I can play well at Pebble. And if I do, that might give me the chance to do something unique.”

This is a nod both to the record books — no golfer has won the modern Grand Slam — and this summer’s other major championship venues: the Old Course, which is the British Open site that best suits Mickelson’s game, and Whistling Straits, which will host the PGA Championship. The last time the PGA was held at the Straits, in 2004, Mickelson was a stroke off the lead standing on the 72nd tee before a closing bogey ended his bid. Only one man on earth knows what it feels like to journey to St. Andrews halfway to the Grand Slam — Arnold Palmer, who did so in 1960, ultimately finishing a stroke behind little-known Kel Nagle in an outcome that still haunts Palmer. “If [Mickelson] wins the Open at Pebble, it will be a big, big, big deal,” says the King. “And then to go straight to St. Andrews, well, that would be pretty magical.”

Pebble Beach has long been one of the Mickelson family’s most anticipated stops on the PGA Tour circuit. “The Monterey Bay Aquarium is our favorite,” Amy wrote in an e-mail to SI last month. “We used to go so often during the week of the [AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am] that it was cheaper for us to buy a yearly membership.” When Amanda — the eldest of the three children, who turns 11 the day after the final round of the Open — was in fourth grade, her class was studying the California missions, so the Mickelsons visited the historic one in Carmel to view the burial site of Father Junipero Serra. They’ve sojourned to Big Sur to hike among the towering redwoods, and by now Phil and Amy know all the best spots along the coast to view frolicking otters and sea lions. The family also makes an annual trip to a candy store in Carmel to pick up a box of the English pastilles favored by Mickelson’s finicky caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay. Phil is both an epicurean and oenophile, and he loves to eat his way across the Monterey Peninsula — ask him to name a few favorite restaurants and he goes genre by genre, from greasy spoons to temples of fine dining. “You can just relax and get lost when you visit the area,” Amy says. “It’s good for your soul and always a special week for our family.”

Because of Amy’s ongoing medical treatments she and the kids have accompanied Phil to only one tournament this year, the Masters. It is not a coincidence that his only victory came at Augusta National. If everything goes according to plan, the family will be joining Phil on the weekend of the Open. “That’s another reason why I like his chances to win,” says Dave Pelz, Mickelson’s short-game coach. “It’s a huge boost for Phil to have all of them there.”

Mickelson’s frame of mind during Open week will also be improved by another of his local traditions, a pretournament round at Cypress Point Golf Club, the wondrous Alister MacKenzie design that is just down 17 Mile Drive from Pebble. Mickelson has won three Pebble Beach Pro-Ams (’98, ’05, ’07) and credits some of his success to the good vibes he gets from playing Cypress the day before the tournament begins. A spin around ultra-private Cypress Point on the eve of the Open is “a nice chance to get away from the hoopla,” Mickelson says, adding, “There are very few courses I get excited just to play in a casual game. Cypress is one of them. It reminds me how much I love this game.”

Mickelson’s host is usually Charles Schwab, the founder of the eponymous financial services firm. For all of his business savvy, Schwab says the most taxing thing about playing with Mickelson is the negotiations on the 1st tee. “They can be very protracted,” says Schwab with a chuckle. He carries an eight handicap. “Phil always wants to play as a plus-five. I think he should be a plus-seven. So we have to have a little hassle about that.” The stakes? “Who’s going to buy lunch,” says Schwab. “Depending on whether or not he’s on a diet, that can get expensive.”

Cypress has heroically resisted retrofitting its timeless layout, so at 6,509 yards it plays very short for Mickelson. The first 10 holes feature four reachable (for Phil) par-5s and a drivable par-4. “There have been a lot of times when I get to the 11th tee seven or eight under par,” says Mickelson. “That’s fun, obviously, but it also gets me in the right aggressive mind-set for tournament play.”

Penal U.S. Open setups often produce meek and defensive golf, but Mickelson plans to go on the attack. “I believe that to succeed at the Open you have to make birdies,” he says. “There are a number of holes at Pebble that can be taken advantage of, but you have to play aggressively.”

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean hitting driver. Last year beastly Bethpage tipped the scales at 7,426 yards, while in 2008 Torrey Pines weighed in at 7,643; Pebble Beach is a comparatively dainty layout that will play only 7,040 yards. Nine days before the Open began, Mickelson buzzed in to Pebble for a day of reconnaissance, mixing with the paying customers in a Masters cap and shorts that showed off surprisingly toned legs. He hit driver on a half-dozen holes but afterward said, “I could imagine hitting zero drivers in a round, depending on the wind.” This wouldn’t be a bad thing for Phil. After finding only two of 14 fairways during the Sunday round at Winged Foot that ended so disastrously, he began working with instructor Butch Harmon toward a shorter, tighter, more repeatable swing. There’s no question he’s driving the ball better, but Mickelson still ranks 183rd on Tour, hitting only 51% of his fairways. (The man who has been given the sardonic nickname Genius by his peers says, typically, “The numbers don’t tell the whole story.” Mickelson rightfully contends that his misses now tend to be much more in play.)

If he does unsheathe the driver, Phil will be taking on what may be the most advantageous Open setup he has faced. To emphasize risk-reward and seduce players into flirting with the ocean that frames so many of Pebble’s shapely greens, the USGA has clipped the rough to only 2 3/4 inches on the par-5s and longer par-4s. The shorter holes feature a relatively manageable three inches.

“It’s a wider golf course than in 2000,” says Mike Davis, the USGA exec who has brought much more imaginative setups to recent Opens. (Ten years ago Mickelson finished 16th, 21 strokes behind Woods.) “There’s more fairway out there. And the first cut of rough is very playable. A good shotmaker will have a lot of options.”

“That’s huge for me,” says Mickelson. “One reason I play so well at Augusta is because the penalty is not that high for missing fairways.”

Positioning off the tee will be paramount, but then the really hard part begins. Pebble is the quintessential second-shot course because of what Davis calls “the smallest greens in championship golf.” Throw in unpredictable seaside gales, and even the best ball strikers are going to miss a bunch of greens. “Getting up and down is going to be so crucial,” says Mickelson, sounding like the cat that swallowed the canary. “With shorter grass around the greens, I can let my short game take over.”

No wonder, then, that after last week’s practice round Mickelson was calling Pebble Beach “maybe the best U.S. Open setup I’ve ever seen.” As he finished his day’s work, he was positively buoyant, dispensing a $100 bill to a cart boy á la Al Czervik of Caddyshack fame. In the parking lot, as he changed his shoes, Mickelson was asked how excited he was about the Open now that he had laid eyes on the course and sniffed the salty sea air. “I’m ready to go get it,” he said, and then he zoomed off to his waiting G-V, hoping to make it home to Rancho Santa Fe in time for dinner with the family.

Mickelson has long been compared to Palmer because of their shared swashbuckling style and connection with the fans. But were it not for his famous final-round charge at Cherry Hills in 1960, Palmer would be another of the Open’s tragic heroes; he kicked away the tournament four times in a six-year span beginning in 1962. “It is without a doubt the hardest tournament in golf to win,” Palmer says. “A U.S. Open course puts a player under tremendous strain. Then there is the pressure you create for yourself because it means so much as our national championship.” Nicklaus, whose four Open victories ties him for the most ever with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, offers an earthier assessment: “I always thought the U.S. Open made a man out of you more than any other tournament.”

What does that say, then, about the great player who never wins it? Consider Mickelson’s brutal self-assessment in the moments after his double bogey at Winged Foot: “I am such an idiot.” Or Snead’s stewing about his blowup in ’39: “That night I was ready to go out with a gun and pay somebody to shoot me. It weighed on my mind so much that I dropped 10 pounds, lost more hair and began to choke even in practice rounds.”

In the book I Remember Sam Snead, lifelong friend Johnny Bulla recounts Snead saying, “There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t think about not winning the Open.” Bulla, who finished runner-up to Snead at the 1946 British Open and the 1949 Masters, adds, “I don’t ever remember seeing Sam lay up… The way Phil Mickelson plays reminds me a lot of the way Sam played.”

Mickelson will turn 40 on Wednesday, the day before the Open begins. As he enters the final act of his career, he cares more and more about his legacy in golf. He’s already going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Phil knows that his record will always be stained if he doesn’t snag
an Open. With four major championships, Mickelson needs one more to tie the career total of Byron Nelson; next on the all-time list would be, among others, Lee Trevino (six majors), Palmer (seven) and Tom Watson (eight). A couple of years ago he was asked about the tournament he covets more than any other. “I love the U.S. Open,” he said. “It just doesn’t love me.” Recently he was reminded of this remark. “I don’t know if I can stand by that,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had some great moments at the U.S. Open, some great memories. If I get to the end of my career and I haven’t won one, O.K., I guess the U.S. Open doesn’t
love me. But let’s see what happens first.”