The mystery of Mickelson Around Sawgrass

It sounds like a contradiction, but Phil Mickelson has been both a prodigy and a late-bloomer. He won a PGA Tour event at age 20 as an amateur, setting up immense expectations.

Published May 15, 2007

PONTE VEDRA BEACH - It sounds like a contradiction, but Phil Mickelson has been both a prodigy and a late-bloomer. He won a PGA Tour event at age 20 as an amateur, setting up immense expectations. But his first major championship did not come until 13 years later, a burden lifted. In between, a guy named Tiger Woods came along, altering the golf landscape while also stealing a good bit of Mickelson's thunder. Mickelson, who way back in 1990 won an NCAA individual title at Innisbrook while a sophomore at Arizona State, has 31 tour titles after Sunday's Players Championship victory, including 22 since Woods turned pro. He moved up to No. 2 in the world behind Woods on Monday and now has created more anticipation for the summer and the year's remaining major championships. While Woods remains the game's biggest draw, it is no stretch to say that Mickelson is the more popular player. Lots of people have thoughts and opinions about him. Here are a few questions that have come up about Mickelson and some educated guesses as to the answers.

1. Are Phil and Tiger mortal enemies?

No. They are not best buddies, don't hang out together. Then again, what rivals do? Their pairing at the 2004 Ryder Cup was a disaster and fueled the talk that they don't get along. There was speculation that Mickelson didn't earn Woods' respect until he won a major championship. They go about their business in completely different ways, and Mickelson has always been deferential to Woods, talking about how much he enjoys the challenge of competing against him. In the past two years, Woods has returned the favor. That doesn't mean he'll be inviting the Mickelsons for a trip on his yacht.

2. Is Phil a phony?

This depends on whom you ask. Many believe his constant smile and waving to the fans is an act. Maybe, but it's better than being a jerk. Fans love Mickelson because he signs autographs, makes eye contact and interacts with them. If he doesn't mean it but does it anyway, so what? One thing you can't deny about Mickelson, however, is his generosity. Last week, golf.com reported a birthday dinner at Ruth's Chris that Mickelson hosted in honor of his caddie, Jim "Bones" MacKay. The tab came to $5, 400 with Mickelson picking up the check. He then gave a $2, 000 tip to the waitress. This year, despite not playing in the New Orleans tournament, he made a donation of $250, 000 to Hurricane Katrina Relief - after having already given $500, 000 to the fund. There are numerous such stories about Mickelson.

3. Is Phil haunted by Winged Foot?

There was every reason to believe so when Mickelson did not post another top 10 after blowing the U.S. Open last year and had a miserable Ryder Cup. But it appears he was simply haunted by bad mechanics more than any mental issues. He worked in the offseason and made the move to swing coach Butch Harmon in order to get more out of his game. Two victories, a second and two thirds would seem to suggest Mickelson is over Winged Foot.

4. Does Phil take too many risks?

Yes. He has gotten better, but course management will always be an issue for a player who is so gifted he believes he can always pull off the remarkable. He did it Saturday and looked like a genius. Had his shot caught a limb and bounded about the trees, he'd be ridiculed. The biggest issue with Mickelson at the U.S. Open last year was not the bad drive at the 18th hole. Golfers hit bad drives under pressure. The problem was failing to chip out on the second shot. Harmon joked Sunday about course management being a bigger issue than Mickelson's swing, but there is likely some truth in the humor.

5. Can Phil overtake Tiger?

Probably not. Woods has such a huge lead in the Official World Golf Ranking that the gap between him and Mickelson is bigger than the gap between Mickelson and the 1, 000th-ranked player. That said, Mickelson could be to Woods what Tom Watson and Lee Trevino were to Jack Nicklaus - accomplished major winners who won several at the Golden Bear's expense. If Mickelson continues to improve under Harmon, he could make Woods' pursuit of Nicklaus' 18 majors an even bigger challenge.

COSTLY ERROR: Sean O'Hair made a quadruple-bogey 7 at the island green 17th on Sunday, costing himself a shot at the title and about $747, 000. It is natural to wonder if the pressure got to him. Perhaps it did on the second shot, when it must have felt suffocating having already hit a ball in the water. But not on the first. It was simply the wrong club, a miscalculation.

It would have been different if O'Hair had chunked the ball into the water or hit it way off line. Instead, he drilled it right at the flag only to see it go long.

"People can sit there on TV and say that I might have choked or I was scared. But I wasn't scared of Phil (Mickelson). I wasn't scared of winning, " O'Hair said. "I gave it my best shot."

SPEED IT UP: O'Hair is a fine player, but he's not going to make many friends playing as slowly as he did Sunday. At times, it was excruciating.

O'Hair was so deliberate that he and Mickelson had fallen nearly two holes behind by the time they reached the 16th.

Meanwhile, Arron Oberholser, who teed off first and played by himself, shot 67 in 2 hours, 40 minutes. Granted, Oberholser faced no pressure. But he did prove you can play fast and well.

"This is how golf should be played, " he said. "There's no reason that a twosome can't play a round of golf in three, three-and-a-half hours. It would make for a better television product and a better product in general."