On Sunday evening, after Phil Mickelson had finished what seemed like an endless series of TV and radio interviews, he made it back to the scorer’s tent behind the 18th green at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, where his caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, waited. MacKay and his boss wore big, satisfied grins as they shared a hearty handshake. “Best idea you’ve ever had, Bones,” Mickelson said before heading out to the green for the trophy presentation.
Mickelson had just won the Tour Championship, the fourth and final event of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Won it? More like dominated it. Despite an embarrassing quadruple-bogey 8 on Thursday, Mickelson shot brilliant rounds of 66 and 65 on the weekend for a nine-under 271 to finish three strokes ahead of runner-up Tiger Woods, who didn’t leave empty-handed either. Woods ended up atop the standings in the controversial-yet-ultimately-exciting playoffs to take his second FedEx Cup title, which came with a $10 million prize. In other words, Mickelson won the battle but Tiger won the war.
That battle, however, may have long-term implications, thanks to MacKay’s brainstorm. Mickelson recently confided to MacKay that he was struggling with his putting stroke, something that had been obvious for months. MacKay suggested that he call Dave Stockton, a two-time PGA Championship winner and the 1991 Ryder Cup captain, who ranks among the best putters in the game’s history.
Stockton happened to be in San Diego, where Mickelson lives, last month to work with Michelle Wie at an LPGA tournament. Stockton and Mickelson got together, and in only a couple of sessions they rediscovered the deadly stroke that Mickelson brought to the Tour 17 years ago.
Mickelson used to have a forward press at address — that is, he moved his hands well ahead of the ball to begin his stroke. That’s how Stockton putted, too, and he had Mickelson go back to his old setup. “Dave said, ‘Nobody will putt as well as you and I because we’re leading with the back of our hands,’ ” Mickelson said. “This is the best way to putt. Once he said that, I went, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ It’s been a night-and-day difference.”
The stat of the week at East Lake was Mickelson’s 36 one-putt greens during the 37th win of his remarkable career. NBC analyst Johnny Miller was so taken with Mickelson’s performance that he picked him as the Tour’s player of the year — for 2010.
But before we go there, here are SI’s picks for the end-of-2009 awards.
The FedEx Cup. Yes, the seasonlong points system is complicated, but during the playoffs the golf was mostly terrific, everyone in the field at East Lake had at least a mathematical shot, and interest was unquestionably high.
Planet Obvious Player of the Year
Is there a more predictable award in golf? Why not simply rename the POY award the Tiger Woods Trophy after the nine-time winner and get it over with? Woods may not have won a major in ’09, but his six victories were three more than the next biggest winners, Mickelson and Steve Stricker, had this year.
• Track Tiger’s major progress
Say Cheese Player of the Year
At 42, Stricker enjoyed a career year. In addition to his three wins, he was a runner-up twice and became the first Wisconsin native to reach No. 2 in the World Ranking.
Comeback Player of the Year
Woods again, in a race as suspenseful as a Burmese election. As we all know, Woods had reconstructive surgery on his left knee and missed the second half of the ’08 season, yet he bounced back with one of his more consistent years.
Shot of the Year
On the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Y.E. Yang hit a brilliant 210-yard approach with a 21-degree hybrid over a tree and to within 10 feet of the hole, leading to a birdie that catapulted him to a three-shot win over Woods.
• Complete PGA Championship coverage
Groundhog Day Putt of the Year
me if you’ve heard this before: Woods,
this time for his 15-footer for birdie on
the 72nd hole to win the Arnold Palmer
Invitational (for the sixth time) by a shot.
Best Early-Season Winner We Should Have Taken More Seriously
Yang, who won for the first time on Tour at the Honda Classic in March.
Tom Terrific Tournament of the Year
There’s only one event that we are still talking about — the British Open, during which 59-year-old Tom Watson was poised to do the impossible. Not only was he going to blow away the record as the oldest major champion, but he also was going to tie Harry Vardon for most Open wins (six). Watson looked like a sure thing until his approach on the 72nd hole rolled over the green into an awkward lie. Watson putted his ball 10 feet past the hole and put a poor stroke on the par putt that would’ve given him the historic win. He ran out of gas in the anticlimactic playoff and lost to Stewart Cink, but Watson’s performance was golf’s inspirational moment of 2009.
• Complete British Open coverage
Sob Story of the Year
Upset of the Year
Check out this scenario: Woods has a seven-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole at the Barclays. Heath Slocum has a 20-footer for par on the same hole. One of them makes his putt to win the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. The other misses and ties for second. Tiger makes, Slocum misses, right? Wrong. Slocum’s clutch putt vaulted him from 124th (out of 125 starters) to third in FedEx Cup points, and he eventually collected $2.5 million in the playoffs.
Brief Encounter Award
Henrik Stenson let it all hang out when he stripped to his shorts to play out of a water hazard during the CA Championship because he didn’t want to soil his shirt and slacks. C’mon, man. Why risk playing the rest of the day in wet undies?
• Photos: Henrik Stenson’s strip show
Best Needle in a Supporting Role
A day after the CA Championship, at the Tavistock Cup in Orlando, which pits the Tour pros from Isleworth Country Club against those who are members at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, Woods (Isleworth) presented Stenson (Lake Nona) with a pair of autographed Nike briefs on the 1st tee.
Madoff Mad-As-Hell Award
Disgraced financier Allen Stanford, whose empire crumbled under a federal investigation and indictment for fraud. The Stanford name was removed from the St. Jude Championship, which Stanford had agreed to sponsor for $50 million over seven years.
Losing-Your-Shorts Quote of the Year
Stenson, who had a sponsorship deal as well as personal investments with Stanford: “I’m trying to focus on playing golf in my underwear and letting other people focus on my finances.”
Tugging-on-Superman’s-Cape Quote of the Year
Jim Furyk, when informed that U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples plans to pair him with Woods at next week’s matches: “Well, I guess I’ll have to carry him again.” Furyk then quickly added, “Make sure you note that there was a smile on my face when I said that.” So noted.
Short-Knocker Stat of the Year
Gay ranks 192nd in driving distance, at 268.0 yards per tee shot, ahead of only Corey Pavin (260.7).
Best Year-After Ryder Cup Perk
“People stopped calling me Justin Leonard,” said U.S. hero Hunter Mahan.
Twit and Wit Award After launching consecutive tee shots out-of-bounds at the 10th hole during the second round of the Tour Championship and making a quadruple-bogey 8, Cink asked his Twitter followers (who number more than 930,000) to come up with a nickname for him. The winning entry: Ocho Cinko.