The Phoenix Open was all too happy to serve as a warmup act for
the Super Bowl last week, moving its final round from Sunday to
Saturday so as not to distract from the world-stopping
extravaganza only 30 miles away. But when the weekend was over,
the NFL--whose ultimate show seldom produces a Roman numeral
worth remembering--had to be envious of the overtime
demonstration of full-contact golf put on by the baby-faced duo
of Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard.
Despite its deferential posture, Phoenix Open LVI (that's 56 for
an event that began in 1935) was everything a tournament this
side of a major championship could hope to be. First of all, the
spacious and strategically mounded TPC of Scottsdale was packed
with the biggest golf crowds ever seen, with a record 156,875
roaring over the landscape on Saturday. It had a final round
that included a pair of 62s, by Mark Calcavecchia and Curt
Byrum, and a 60, by Grant Waite. Most of all, on Saturday
everyone was swept away on a 21-hole roller-coaster ride with
two classically matched adversaries whose youth, hunger and
talent promise many more such showdowns.
When the final birdie dropped at dusk, what seemed to rise above
the saguaros--above the urgings of "Be the ball, Phil," and, yes,
the newest war cry in golf, "I love you, man," and even the
fleet of hot-air balloons that hovered ubiquitously over the
proceedings--was the indomitable will of Mickelson. By firing a
final-round 67 that included enough stops, starts and
cliff-hangers to suit a silent movie, the 25-year-old lefthander
clawed his way into a playoff with the callow but seemingly more
solid Leonard, who immediately went for the kill with the quiet
precision of a hit man.
But Mickelson survived by lifting himself to a new level of
brinkmanship. On the first playoff hole, after Leonard had hit
an eight-iron to six feet, Mickelson answered with a nine-iron
to eight feet. Both holed their putts. On the second hole
Mickelson went from bunker to bunker and was left with a
20-footer to stay alive. He made it. "That's one of the most
exciting feelings I've ever had," he said later. "I felt just
like I did at the Ryder Cup." Inspired, he closed the deal on
the third sudden-death hole--the devilish 285-yard, par-4
17th--with a pitch-and-putt birdie that Leonard couldn't match.
Wielding a 60-degree wedge like a magic wand, Mickelson got up
and down four times over the last nine holes by relying on
variations of his patented "super flop"--the high-risk pop-up
shot he grooved as a youngster. The most vital save occurred at
the aforementioned 17th during regulation. There, after
Mickelson had taken a one-stroke lead with a spectacular birdie
on the par-3 16th, he chose to gamble with a driver, which he
pushed into a water hazard. With Leonard facing an easy chip
that would lead to a birdie, Mickelson took a fast, full swing
from less than 25 yards from his target, and with the utmost
precision nipped a high-flying lob that landed like the
proverbial butterfly with sore feet. The resulting six-inch
tap-in for par kept him tied with a hole to go.
The results of Mickelson's high-wire act were no surprise to
Leonard, who steeled himself in advance to expect the
impossible. "That's Phil," said Leonard, whose own lack of
mastery of the flop kept him from saving par on the 70th hole
after a well-struck six-iron shot rolled down an embankment.
"You always expect your opponent to make a shot, but with him,
you really expect him to make it. If he misses a green, he has
as good a chance of making a birdie as a guy with a 15-footer.
I've seen his act before, but he definitely put on a clinic
To borrow the favorite phrase of noted Super Bowl sage Chuck
Noll, Mickelson owed his success in the Valley of the Sun to
doing "whatever it takes." He may appear, to the rashly
judgmental eye, to be a soft pretty boy, and that simpering
smile can grate. But make no mistake, Mickelson possesses the
gift most treasured by elite athletes. He is a closer, a
finisher, a killer, a winner. To the bone. "All his life, no
matter if it was Little League, junior golf or an Atari game,
Phil always got it done," said his older sister, Tina, who
cheered her brother on in Phoenix. "You just know he is going to
find a way to do it. You're more surprised when he doesn't than
you're excited when he does."
By following his victory in Tucson two weeks earlier with an
even more magical triumph in the town where he attended college
and now lives, Mickelson has revived a mystique that was being
dismissed as hype in some quarters. After a seemingly lethargic
34-month period from the spring of 1993 to the end of last year
during which he won only two events, he surrendered the
unofficial crown as the most prominent young player to Ernie
Els. His latest pair of wins completes an Arizona sweep that
hadn't been accomplished since golf's original Desert Fox--Johnny
Miller--did it in 1974 and again in 1975. They also bring
Mickelson's career-victory total to seven, making him the
youngest to achieve that number since Jack Nicklaus. More
significant, Mickelson also tied Davis Love III, Fred Couples
and Lee Janzen as the American golfers with the most PGA Tour
victories since 1991. He now has a chance to put together the
monster year that eluded both Love and Couples after their fast
starts in 1992, as well as Peter Jacobsen last year.
Mickelson's new momentum was not gained by accident.
Disappointed by his performance in 1995, in which he placed 28th
on the money list and had only four top-10 finishes, Mickelson
decided that he had lost his mental edge and needed to rekindle
his desire to be a champion. To get back on top, he was
determined to improve in several areas, starting with his swing.
Although Mickelson is primarily a feel player whose strength is
his excellent rhythm and tempo, he is working to widen his
backswing arc in order to take the "steepness" out of his
forward swing. The goal is to create a strike that produces less
backspin and sidespin and is thus more accurate and easier to
control. Mickelson is also trying to reduce the amount of
lower-body slide in his forward swing.
Mickelson is making an effort to improve his concentration and
patience, particularly in the first two rounds of tournaments,
so that he is not out of contention so often on the weekends. He
is continuing to work on a longtime weakness, lag putting.
Though Mickelson's stroke is often compared to Ben Crenshaw's,
he leaves himself entirely too many five- and six-foot comeback
putts, the kind that can quickly age even a 25-year-old.
Ultimately, because of his competitive nature and history as a
player who converts chances into victories, what Mickelson most
needs to bring out his best is to go head-to-head with
tournament leaders as often as possible.
That was clear at Phoenix, where Leonard was clearly primed for
his first Tour victory. The 1992 U.S. Amateur winner last year
joined Woody Austin and David Duval as the first trio of rookies
to finish in the top 30 on the Tour's money list, and many
observers feel Leonard possesses the most mature game of the
three. His metier is steadiness throughout the bag, as evidenced
by his No. 1 finish in the all-around statistical category in
1995, and a current streak of 15 straight cuts without a miss.
Relatively short off the tee, Leonard rarely makes a lot of
birdies, but he tends to "keep" them by avoiding bogeys. If
different styles make for interesting fights, Leonard and
Mickelson should produce intriguing showdowns for years to come.
If Mickelson is a magician, Leonard is more a mechanic, with a
swing that is compact and visually abrupt. At 5'9", 160 pounds,
Leonard is five inches shorter than Mickelson, and the
tight-fitting hat he wears low on his brow makes him appear
squatter. While Mickelson plays the latest in high-tech graphite
shafts and heads engineered in Japan, Leonard sticks to
traditional persimmon woods, steel shafts and forged irons
stamped with Ben Hogan's name. While Mickelson's shirts have
featured a tie-dye pattern, Leonard wears a conservative line
designed by Ralph Lauren. While Mickelson appears suited to make
the Masters his first major victory, Leonard's best shot might
be in a U.S. Open.
"The way he plays and the way he carries himself, Justin can
seem about 40 years old," says Tom Kite, a mentor, close friend
and fellow University of Texas alum. "I've never seen a player
his age so polished."
For all their obvious differences, Mickelson and Leonard share
two characteristics that enhance their rivalry. Both, by word
and deed, consider it fun to get in the heat. Leonard, who had
never before led a Tour event, said after the third round that
he was looking forward to "a learning experience." Said
Mickelson, "It's going to be thrilling to come down 18 with
150,000 people cheering and a chance to win." On Saturday, while
walking to the 18th tee to begin sudden death, Mickelson
reprised Tom Watson's line to Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 when
he said to Leonard, "This is what it's all about. This is
exactly why we are out here playing." And both players, despite
their rosy cheeks, are fierce fighters, with the edge in day-in,
day-out grinding going to Leonard. "It's never been my nature to
say, 'Oh well, this is over,' no matter how bad things get,"
Leonard said. "And I hope I never do."
In fact, his degree of toughness at Phoenix would have been
worthy of another Leonard, Sugar Ray. Small but vocal segments
of the fiercely pro-Mickelson galleries on several occasions
tried to disrupt Leonard's concentration on the greens with
taunts of "Miss it, Noonan," recalling the character from the
movie Caddyshack. Leonard betrayed no reaction during
competition, but after the round he was clearly agitated.
"I was mad," he said. "I kind of expected it, but not to the
point of people yelling negative things. It was like playing
Mike Ditka and Michael Jordan on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
The way I looked at it, I had the opportunity of ticking off
more than 100,000 people. I didn't, but at no time did I feel
like I lost the tournament. This tells me the stuff I'm doing is
right. Winning was right on the tip of my tongue today."
Only timely brilliance by Mickelson kept Leonard from
succeeding. That the lefthander was able to free his mind from
nerves and indecision was perhaps his most important
accomplishment of the day. Mickelson was obviously tight the
first few holes, trying too hard to bring home a victory in the
tournament he publicly declared he most wanted to win, after the
four majors. Mickelson was also hampered by consciously trying
to implement the new moves in his swing under final-day
pressure. Confused, he drove erratically for the first several
holes, relying heavily on his short game to save par. Knowing he
would need his best to stay with Leonard, he made a key decision.
"The last 12 holes of the tournament, I threw any swing thoughts
to the wind and just played by instinct."
That instinct is of the killer variety. Actually, it's one that
runs in the family. Earlier in the year, Mary Mickelson called
her son for some reassurance. It seems Mom, considered the
second-most-competitive member of her clan, was nervous about
her next game in a women's over-50 basketball league.
"I was so nervous, and I thought, Maybe this is something like
Phil feels. I wonder how he handles it," she said. "He just
said, 'Mom, don't worry. You're a Mickelson.' And you know, we
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK The largest crowd ever on Tour was rooting for Mickelson to complete the desert double. [Phil Mickelson]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Taunts from the pro-Mickelson fans did nothing but bring out the fighter in the 23-year-old Leonard. [Justin Leonard]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKIt is a tradition in Phoenix to come early, then hang around for the late show at sunset. [People standing as sun sets]