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Today, we'll find out what is in Mickelson

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001

TULSA, Okla. -- In a world without Tiger, Phil Mickelson would be king.

Imagine it. Imagine Tiger Woods taking up racquetball as a child. Imagine Woods playing every week the way he has during the U.S. Open. Imagine Woods as something less than beyond imagination.

Imagine that, and imagine Mickelson living the wonderful life. Imagine him, on top of the world, cashing checks, chasing one more star for his constellation.

That's the kind way to think of Phil Mickelson, as being one Woods from immortality.

The other way is this: If not for Tiger, he'd be finishing just behind someone else. Anyone else.

Today, we find out about Mickelson. We find out if he really is a competitor who suffered the misfortune to be born in the era of the best one golf has seen. Or we find out if there really is a soft, gooey center inside of him.

Today, we look for greatness inside of Mickelson. We look for substance, for fire. We join him on his way to Oz, where he is out to prove he does not, after all, need a heart.

The shadows have been removed from Mickelson. Tiger is out of contention, and everyone but Tiger seems to know it. Retief Goosen is renting space at the top of the leaderboard, and even Goosen seems aware of that. There is a tournament that can be won. There is a prize to be claimed. There is tarnish to remove from a reputation.

This is a defining moment in Mickelson's career. If he shows up today, he can silence this talk about never winning a major and end the jokes about the never-on-Sunday golfer. Do that, and people finally will talk of what Mickelson has done rather than what he has not.

Fail, and the world will not let him forget it. Flop, and they'll change the spelling of this state to Chokelahoma.

For golfers, for all athletes, greatness is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you measure up to the moment that matters, or you do not. You win when the world is watching, or it will decide there was nothing to see.

Saturday was Mickelson's 31st birthday, and it was much like the rest of his career. It was very good, but it could have been better. He shot 68, but he had three bogeys on the back nine. He hit a brilliant shot on 13 to get within 8 feet of eagle, then three-putted. He followed with birdie, and he followed that with bogey. After a while, his card was as up and down as a heart monitor which, in a way, it is.

Still, it's hard to scoff at 68 and a chance at victory. Once again, success is flirting with Mickelson. Once again, we wait to see if he can bring it home.

The history of Mickelson tells us he is very often successful on Saturdays, and less so on Sundays, and never at a major championship. Oh, he wins tournaments ... 18, in fact, more than any active player without a major. And he makes money. More than $16-million in his career.

All of that is success, not greatness. What he has not done is win a major. In golf, you don't build a rep on Greater Greensboro Opens. You either win a major, or as a player, you are a minor. Mickelson has alternated with David Duval as the player most often mentioned in that damning compliment: The Best Player Never to Win a Major, which is something like The Best Pilot Never To Actually Steer or The Greatest Guitarist Not To Know Any Chords. There are no great players to never win majors. Winning a major is what makes a player great.

Golfers know this. Five years ago, when Tom Lehman won his British Open, one of the first things he expressed was relief. "My great fear was to have on my gravestone, "He couldn't win the big one.' "

It's a concern Mickelson should share. He has played in 35 majors without winning, and at times, it has seemed the idea of winning a major has made the air thin and collar tight. For instance, he had the Masters cold this year, and Tiger came roaring past, leaving a lingering picture of Mickelson with whiplash.

"This year, I've had a number of (chances), and I seem to almost take it for granted," Mickelson said. "I haven't been as tough and as greedy on Sundays to win the title. But there's only one U.S. Open, and I won't take it for granted."

He is the biggest name on the leaderboard, and for once, he doesn't have to win a duel with Woods. To put his relief into perspective, imagine the Sheriff of Nottingham getting to the final scene and discovering he doesn't have to beat Robin Hood in a sword fight.

Today isn't about a Tiger, it's about the monkey on Mickelson's back. It's about a guy who has spent his career on the fringe of greatness. It's about a guy becoming either Tom Kite, who waited an eternity to win his first major, or a Doug Sanders, who never did.

"I'm not really a big believer in "I'm due for this,' " Mickelson said. "What I found is you play well or if you don't. . . ."

Say what you will. There is something to the notion that it takes a little more, a little extra, to win when the stakes are higher. Call it guts or character or will, but the great ones have it. Everyone else runs just fast enough to finish second.

As for Mickelson, we find out today.

Either he shows up with something, or he leaves as nothing at all.

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