This article first appeared in the September 03, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated.
All you need to know about the 1990 U.S. Amateur champion, Phil Mickelson, is that he conceded a 30-foot par putt on the first hole of a match before sinking his own two-footer for birdie. “I wasn’t going to try to lag a two-footer,” said Mickelson, an Arizona State junior, after his 5 and 4 victory on Sunday over his close friend and former high school teammate Manny Zerman in the 36-hole final at Denver’s Cherry Hills Country Club. “I thought it was a gimme.”
All week, spectators flocked to the tall Californian with the turned-up collar and Brat Pack good looks, oohing at his booming drives and aahing at his high-flying long-iron shots. On Aug. 22, Mickelson—the best left-handed golfer since Bob Charles—shot a course-and tournament-record 64 in a stroke-play qualifying round at nearby Meridian Golf Club, good for a two-round total of 135 and medalist honors. From that point on, Mickelson, winner of the last two NCAA championships, hogged the spotlight like no U.S. amateur since Ben Crenshaw.
“It’s his short game that’s so remarkable,” said TV commentator and former USGA executive Frank Hannigan. “He just might be a world-class player.”
Mickelson beat Zerman, a South African transplanted by way of San Diego to the University of Arizona, in a spirited final. Asked if he ever felt he was losing it in the afternoon, Mickelson said, “On 2 and 3, on 4, on 8 when he chips in, on 6 when he knocks it to an inch….”
In the semifinal, Mickelson’s victim was a 1989 Walker Cup teammate, 38-year-old David Eger, tournament director for the PGA Tour. Eger was asked if he thought spectators were pulling for him against the much younger Mickelson; he smiled wanly and said he detected no such support. “It’s lonely inside those ropes,” he said. “That’s why I hit it outside.”
Eger was fortunate. Defending champion Chris Patton, the 310-pound heavyweight from Fountain Inn, S.C., quickly found himself on the ropes against his first-round opponent, Chris Zambri, a sophomore at Southern Cal. Patton lost six of the first seven holes and was 7 down with seven to play when he reached the 12th hole, a 203-yard par-3. Waiting for the green to clear, the easygoing Patton sprawled on a bench, whistling tunelessly. Zambri’s caddie asked him, “When are you turning pro, Chris?” The glassy-eyed Patton replied, “In about five minutes.”
Zambri then stepped up to his ball and aced the hole with a five-iron, punctuating the worst first-round beating of a defending champ in U.S. Amateur history. Patton, classy in defeat, gave Zambri a high five but didn’t realize the match was over until he was addressing his own ball, at which point he murmured, “Oh, jeez.” Taking a half-swing, he intentionally chipped into the lake, making his last splash as an amateur a small one.
With Patton gone, the compelling question was whether Mickelson could survive the week pretending the fearsome par-5, 555-yard, island-green 17th was a waterless par-4. The moat hole is where Ben Hogan lost the 1960 U.S. Open, dumping a wedge shot into the drink after laying up. Mickelson, a psychology major, wouldn’t even acknowledge the water was there. “You can’t see it from the fairway,” he said, “so I just let ‘er rip.” In his third-round match, against Washington senior Mike Swingle, Mickelson flew a two-iron 245 yards to the green to set up a birdie. On Saturday, in a tight match with Oklahoma State’s Bob May, he sailed a three-wood over the putting surface but chipped back and made another birdie. “He’s got a little more confidence than the rest of us.” Swingle said.
Mickelson’s battering-ram approach to the 17th almost proved costly on Sunday. Four up on Zerman after 16 holes of the morning round, he attacked anyway, going for the green with a three-wood from the left rough. This time, though, Mickelson sliced the ball into the lake and lost the hole. “I’d do it again,” he said later. “I’m just not one to lay up.”
Zerman played brilliantly after lunch, cutting Mickelson’s lead to one with a front-nine 32. Could the son of Italian parents from Durban, South Africa, who left his father and mother for adoptive parents in San Diego after winning the Chilean Amateur and before getting a golf scholarship at a desert university not far from the Mexican border—are you following this?—win the U.S. Amateur?
No. Mickelson regained command at the turn and won four of the next five holes, closing out his buddy with a tap-in par on the 14th. He thus became the first player since 1961 to win the NCAA and Amateur championships in the same year. Who did it then? Jack Nicklaus.