With the 2006 PGA Tour season officially over, it's natural to think about 2007 and the many questions that will hang in the air like thought bubbles for the next two months.
- Will Adam Scott will use his Tour Championship victory as a springboard to winning his first major?
- Will Tiger Woods will extend his Tour winning streak beyond six straight victories?
- Will golf's new FedEx Cup improve the "fan connectivity" that Tour commish Tim Finchem hoped for in his State of the Tour press conference last week?
- Will the FedEx Cup entice the big boys to crack heads more often? Or will it be all sizzle, no steak?
None of these cliffhangers, however, compares to the enigmatic Phil Mickelson, whose now-you-see-him, now-you-don't scheduling has always baffled even the experts. His final public act this season, after throwing away a one-stroke lead with a double-bogey on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open in June, was to make a special mess of things at the Ryder Cup, going 0-4-1. That he proceeded to fall entirely off the map made him doubly vexing. No WGC-AmEx, no Tour Championship, no Fall Finish. He was—as always—the fall father. Never let it be said that Mickelson doesn't put a lot of time and energy into Halloween.
The day after he gave away the Open, Mickelson went to Disneyland for daughter Amanda's 7th birthday, but it was all the cheerfulness he could muster. A few days later he bailed on a made-for-TV par-3 shootout in Michigan. By August he was back to his cheerful self, as he and his wife greeted 900 kids ranging from first-graders to fourth-, and in concert with Wal-Mart, gave them backpacks full of school supplies. His game, however, was gone for good, mothballed until 2007.
After a stellar first half of '06, in which he recorded eight Top 15s, six Top 10s and two victories (including the Masters) in his first nine starts, making an argument for the No. 1 ranking in sports bars if not in actual points, Mickelson did nothing after crashing to earth at Winged Foot. His ho-hum British Open (T22) and PGA (T16) were interspersed with poor play at the Western Open (T65), the International (MC, despite having won at Castle Pines) and the WGC-Bridgestone (T54). Indeed, his best result on the course came on October 2, when he shot a course-record 60 at Cape Arundel GC in Kennebunkport, Maine, as a guest of former President George H.W. Bush. Bush, Justin Leonard and Maine amateur Mark Plummer looked on as Mickelson made nine birdies, including six straight, to break the record by two strokes.
Where was that player at the K Club? You had to worry about the deer-in-the-headlights look Mickelson wore as he ran his record to 3-9-2 in the last three Ryder Cups. At 36, after winning three major championships, it's conceivable that he is competitively fried. He wouldn't be the first. Ernie Els hasn't looked the same since contending in all four majors in 2004 and winning none. Ditto for star-crossed Len Mattiace, who won twice after making his awful 8 on the 71st hole of the 1998 Players Championship but was shattered by his playoff loss to Mike Weir in the 2003 Masters. He finished 226th on the money list in '06.
Both Els and Mattiace have been trying to come back from knee injuries, but the psyche is sometimes slower to mend than any body part. If you believe in the Norman Law, that a player can endure only so much heartache before his iron competitive will turns to tapioca, then you have to wonder about Els, Mattiace and now Mickelson.
According to a member of Lefty's inner circle, he has begun to think of 2006 as a lost half-year, and may rebound from it the way he rebounded from a winless 2003. He's excited about the FedEx Cup, and is already taking steps to gear up for 2007, planning long sit-down meetings with his short game coach, Dave Pelz; his swing coach, Rick Smith; and his trainer, Sean Cochran. They will assess what he's done up to now and retool his game for the long haul, to avoid the precipitous post-PGA decline that has heretofore defined his career. (With the exception of his round with Bush, and that 59 he shot at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf a few years ago.)
Years from now golf historians will look at Mickelson's mid-30s as a time of abundance, when he won a major a year from 2004 through 2006. That's not a bad stretch for any player, even Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. Perhaps Mick the Stick will continue to win the Masters every two or three years, and the odd PGA and maybe a U.S. Open if he gets the driver figured out. Or maybe he'll actually have a 3-wood in the bag the next time he needs one.
Then again, maybe the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot will be a line of demarcation in golf history, the moment when one player, Mickelson, torched his career and in so doing sparked the resurgence of another, Woods. Almost as remarkable as Mickelson's collapse was the way Tiger pivoted from missing the cut at the U.S. Open to messing with the field at Royal Liverpool, and then at Medinah.
Assuming he skips the Mercedes again, Woods will make his 2007 debut at the Buick Invitational at San Diego's Torrey Pines. The tournament will take on extra significance because Torrey is scheduled to host the 2008 U.S. Open, but the Buick also happens to be Mickelson's hometown tournament. Will Lefty put an end to Woods's win streak? Will he put up a fight? What will Phil do next?