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Golden Boy, Golden Bear

Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus showed their mettle by winning the Mercedes titles

It is the rare golfer who is able to begin a new year without changing something, either to solve one or two of the game's mysteries, or just for the hell of it. So it wasn't surprising that at the traditional season opener—which even changed its name from the Tournament of Champions to the Mercedes Championships—at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., last week, there were as many makeovers on the course as in the salons.

Scott Simpson showed up with a respectable beard, while Jim Colbert sported his first respectable rug. Greg Norman came not under the flag of IMG, his longtime exclusive agent, but as the head of his own management firm, Great White Shark Enterprises, a change that did nothing to address whether Norman has learned to better manage his game.

The tournament's youngest player, 23-year-old Phil Mickelson, came determined to tighten and flatten his classically flowing swing and to improve his lag putting. Meanwhile the field's most venerated member, Jack Nicklaus, two weeks shy of his 54th birthday and making his first appearance at La Costa in nine years, was working on swing changes while completing a psychological about-face—from the coolly detached professional, able to leave the game flat, to an avowed "golf junkie" rivaling Arnold Palmer. "There isn't anyone who loves to play golf more than I do," said Nicklaus. "I get passionate about it."

And there was plenty of passion produced at La Costa, particularly by Nicklaus and Mickelson, the arresting symbols of golf past and golf future, who prevailed in the dual fields of senior and regular Tour winners from the 1993 season. With an impressive nine-under-par total of 279—over the same 7,022-yard layout that the regular Tour golfers played—Nicklaus came from three behind in the final round to win the senior division by a stroke. Deploying the kind of powerful game that many observers believed he could no longer muster, Nicklaus caught Bob Murphy with six-foot birdie putts on the 70th and 71st holes and then gutted in another six-footer for a par on the 72nd. Murphy's chances for victory died when he airmailed the last green for a bogey.

With only one bright spot in 1993, his victory in the U.S. Senior Open, Nicklaus viewed this latest win—his seventh in the 23 senior tournaments he has played—as 11th-hour reinforcement to his stubborn belief that he can still, when he is on, contend at the highest level. "You can laugh at me, say whatever you want," said Nicklaus after shooting the fourth-lowest overall total of the week. "My goal is to be competitive in the majors. If I believe in my own mind that I can compete, then I've got a chance."

If Nicklaus was looking ahead to great things, so was Mickelson, who defeated Fred Couples on the second hole of sudden death to become the youngest player to win four times on the PGA Tour since Nicklaus got No. 4, also at 23, in 1963. Playing head-to-head with Couples, the lefthanded Mickelson matched him with a final-round 68 and a total of 12-under-par 276. Then, on the deciding hole, Couples's tee shot took a bad bounce and ended up tucked below the lip of a fairway trap. All Mickelson needed was to get down in two from 50 feet for a par and victory, and he did just that. "It was intense, but it was fun," said Mickelson, taking the Nicklaus approach to grace under pressure. "I have a lot of work to do on my game, but I feel like I'm making strides."

So, despite losing his fourth tournament in a playoff, does the 34-year-old Couples, who is trying to put the events of 1993 behind him. Exactly 12 months ago he was the PGA Tour's two-time reigning Player of the Year and the defending Masters champion, yet he still believed strongly that he could get significantly better. But by the time he reached Augusta last April, his season had dissolved into frustration, unhappiness and enormous legal fees as the battle over his divorce from his wife of 12 years, Deborah, dragged on. It was finally settled out of court in October. "I don't like confrontations," he explained at La Costa. "I'd never really had one my whole life."

For Couples the unhappy result was that he spent more time with lawyers than his fellow players. He became depressed, cut back his practice time and lost much of his motivation. The severe headaches that have bothered him in recent years became more frequent, and by the middle of the year gray hairs had begun to appear on the nape of his neck. Most noticeable to friends was an attitude, something they had never seen in the congenial Couples. "I wanted to be the biggest jerk I could be," he said. "For some reason, I thought it would make me feel better."

The fact that Couples was able to win the Honda Classic and $796,579 in 19 Tour events to finish 10th on the 1993 money list was testimony to his talent. But he knew he was not nearly the golfer he had been in 1991 and 1992, when he had learned to rise to the big occasion. Last year Couples seemed to withdraw from big moments: He played indifferently in the four major championships as well as in the Ryder Cup matches in September, during which he suffered painful headaches and failed to win a match.

"It was a wasted year, and I was irritated because of the way I wasted it," he said. "I cheated myself, because there were a lot of tournaments I went into where I wasn't ready to play. I was miserable, because I knew when I teed off, it was going to be a struggle."

When the divorce became final, Couples almost instantly returned to his 1992 form. As he put it, "My life has been rocketing forward. Once all that ended, it was a great feeling. Probably better than winning Augusta."

In October he led a three-man U.S. team to victory at the Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews, and at the World Cup in November, he and Davis Love III led wire to wire. Couples also won the Kapalua International and was second at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, the Skins Game and at the Johnnie Walker World Championship. In all, in the final three months of 1993 he won three events, was second three times and picked up $1,150,000 in unofficial prize money.

"Fred has so much talent," says Nicklaus. "His ability to produce great power with little physical effort is a tremendous asset. But I think it is almost an untapped talent. He's got the next two or three years to reach another level. He's at a level as high as anyone in the game today, and if he can jump one more level, he probably will have more game than anybody. But with Fred, so far at least, you just don't know."

The Couples who assessed himself at La Costa sounded like a new man, as if he had emerged from his personal trial stronger, wiser and more serious. While he was happier and more relaxed, he was also betraying some urgency. "What I'm going to try and do this year is be prepared," Couples said. "Make sure I don't go cheating myself by just showing up. I know I can not practice, not prepare, and still make money on the PGA Tour. But that would be a waste—and I don't want to throw away too much time.

"I won't say I'm the best player, but I'm also not going to say anyone else is better. I think I can be as good as Nick Price and Nick Faldo. I'm real close."

A big factor in Couples's new attitude is Tawnya Dodd, with whom Couples is now living in suburban Dallas. Whereas Fred and Deborah grew apart after she stopped attending tournaments with him, Dodd, 32, enjoys the Tour and travels with Couples whenever her responsibilities as the mother of an 11-year-old son allow. "I want to share this with somebody," Couples said. "It makes no sense to trot around by yourself, and especially when you are doing better than you've ever done before. A golfer needs that support. More than you know.

"I'm more at ease. I don't get excited by a bad round, as I did last year. I would get so fed up because I had to deal with all the other stuff; I was a bad round waiting to happen, especially on Sunday."

It didn't happen this past Sunday, which Couples began tied for the lead with Mickelson at eight under, a figure that seniors Murphy and Dave Stockton had also reached. But any hopes the oldsters had of shooting a lower total than the regular Tour players were doused when Couples exploded out of the blocks with birdies on three of the first four holes and capped a front-nine 31 by hitting the 538-yard par-59th hole with a three-wood and holing a 12-foot putt for an eagle.

Right with him was Mickelson, who made four birdies to turn in 32. On the back nine Mickelson holed 25-footers for birdies on the 12th and 13th holes to move into a tie, and then took the lead with another birdie on the 15th.

The finish was a nervous one. At 16, Mickelson's errant tee shot landed behind a tree and he bogeyed to drop into a tie, but Couples gave the lead back on the 17th, where he made his first bogey of the week on the back nine. With the tournament in his hands on the 72nd hole, Mickelson's 70-foot approach putt from three yards off the green motored 18 feet past the cup, and he missed his par putt to fall into a playoff.

He might have looked like a loser, but Mickelson has demonstrated a knack for converting adversity into victory. When Couples's tee shot on the second extra hole hopped into a bunker, Mickelson tightened his grip on the unofficial title of best young professional in the world.

Nicklaus had seemed to lose his grip on being the best old one, perhaps even in his own mind. In December he sat down and compared 1993 videos of his swing with films from past performances, like his win at the 1980 U.S. Open. He didn't like what he saw. "I thought, Oh my god, I've got to take that out there and play golf with it," he said.

Thereafter Nicklaus concentrated on getting his weight behind the ball on his backswing and employing a flatter swing plane. At La Costa the changes increased his power and accuracy, as he averaged 260.5 yards off the tee—second among the seniors to Raymond Floyd's 262.5—and hit 55 of 72 greens in regulation.

For Nicklaus, with plans for a year full of competition, the result held more promise than climax. "I played a very good senior tournament," he said. "But I feel I can play better than I did this week."

How much better? With the utter soberness that the world thought was arrogance when he was Mickelson's age, Nicklaus said, "A great year, I guess, would be winning a major or two."

There are some things, it seems, that some golfers never change.



After his win at La Costa, Nicklaus lifted his sights to the majors.



Were he righty, Mickelson might have kept the lead when he went barking up the wrong tree on 16 on Sunday.



Couples wasted no time getting a fresh start in '94.