To the unpracticed eye, Phil Mickelson's victory last week at
the GTE Byron Nelson Classic looked as if it were achieved by
casually batting the ball around the Texas prairie for three
rounds before enlisting two fourth-round eagles on Sunday to fly
him home for an easy two-stroke victory over Australia's Craig
Such reasoning would be eminently excusable. While his peers
were laboring for two weeks at Greensboro and Houston, Mickelson
barely touched a club. He arrived in Dallas with only a few days
of practice under his belt. After the Wednesday pro-am he went
directly to a Texas Rangers game at The Ballpark in Arlington
rather than take even a cursory tour of Cottonwood Valley, one
of the two courses to be played during the tournament.
Nevertheless, last Friday, setting foot on the course for the
first time, Mickelson shot a second-round 65 to take a one-shot
tournament lead. Then, still holding a one-stroke lead the night
before the final round, the 25-year-old played three-on-three
basketball at Fred Couples's nearby Plano home with fellow pros
Jay Haas, Davis Love III, Peter Jacobsen and Tom Purtzer.
"It's a fun tournament," Mickelson tossed off when prodded about
his seemingly casual approach after Friday's round. "I just
wanted to have a fun week. It's kind of a bonus to be in
The theme seemed to continue on Sunday. Mickelson stepped out on
the TPC at Four Seasons-Las Colinas and holed a 40-footer on the
1st hole for a birdie, chipped in for another on the 4th and
eagled the par-5 7th to take a three-stroke lead. When he holed
a miniflop with his 60-degree wedge for an eagle at the 16th, he
slammed the door. Two solid pars later and Mickelson had
fashioned a closing 66 for a 15-under-par total of 265 to win
his third tournament of the year, the eighth of his career, and
his first as a pro east of the Rockies. The victory also gave
him more than $1 million in 1996 earnings and placed him back
atop the year's money list with the heart of the season still
ahead, putting him on track for a monster year. So what's not fun?
Plenty. Mickelson may not show it, but, to borrow an image
originated by the even more phlegmatic Julius Boros, he may be
smiling on the outside, but razor blades are grinding away in
his stomach. At the Nelson, Mickelson's rusty ball striking
worried him, as did his short putting, which, as was evident
during his third-place play at the Masters, is less than rock
solid. Despite his previous two victories, as well as a second
and a third, Mickelson had not slept on a lead in a tournament
all year until Friday. On Saturday, after his third-round 67,
Mickelson was the last player to leave the practice range, and
that night sleep was fitful. "When I woke up today," he said
only half in jest on Sunday, "I was hoping for a rainout."
But down the stretch of the final round Mickelson was getting no
help from the heavens. He gave back a third of his three-stroke
lead when he three-putted from 35 feet on the 8th hole, and when
he did the same thing on the 12th, the margin was down to one.
Mickelson then blew a six-iron over the green on the 183-yard
13th and left himself a 15-foot par putt with his chip back,
only to discover that he was tied with Parry, who was playing
three holes ahead and had just birdied 16.
As he was reading the putt and the scoreboard, Mickelson
momentarily hung his head. It appeared that his momentum was
irretrievably slipping, and that he was about to give away a
Sunday lead for only the second time in his four-year career.
But when Mickelson raised back up, he proved that rather than
succumbing to despair, he had been reaching down for something
extra. He made the putt.
It was reminiscent of the 15-footer he had made for par to stay
alive during his sudden-death win at Phoenix in January, and a
vivid reminder of what makes the lefthander special. In the
parlance of that Texas oracle Bum Phillips, he holds on to the
rope. "I think Philip lives for those shots," said his fiancee,
Amy McBride, amid the cheering.
There was more adversity to overcome. Still tied with Parry when
he reached the 445-yard, par-4 15th, Mickelson "stacked" a
six-iron to within five feet. But instead of draining the
uphill, left-to-right putt, he watched his shot hit the left lip
and horseshoe nearly back toward him. "That was a huge
disappointment," he admitted. "It made 16 a must birdie."
After a good drive into the wind on the 554-yard par-5,
Mickelson hit another driver from the fairway that stopped in a
swale just to the left of the green, about 30 feet from the
hole. With a sharp upslope between his ball and the hole, and
the hole cut only 12 feet from the edge of the green, the shot
required all the delicacy Mickelson could muster. He addressed
the ball with his 60-degree wedge, nipped it off the ground
perfectly and watched as it flopped onto the green before
expiring into the hole.
Eagle. Two-stroke lead. Explosion of sound. Now things were fun.
"That was a Phil Mickelson shot," said the tournament host,
Byron Nelson, who knows a thing or two about slamming the door.
"Nobody else can hit it so high and land it so soft. He has an
unbelievably fluid motion. It flows--just like water." The
84-year-old Nelson, who once described champions as "a different
breed of cat," keeps a sharp eye on the current crop of players
and is convinced that Mickelson has the right stuff. "Nobody can
define exactly what that is, but no question that he's got it,"
Lord Byron said. "Some have it and some don't. And he has it."
Mickelson thrives on the challenge of competition and
particularly on being in the hunt on Sunday, even though the
process is never a joyride. He feels the high anxiety to such a
degree that the effort of playing in more than three tournaments
in a row leaves him feeling wrung out and stale.
"I can be pretty difficult to be around during a tournament," he
says. "I get really keyed up, really burn a lot of energy trying
to stay focused, and it takes a lot out of me. One of my goals
this year has been to come to tournaments feeling fresh."
That is why his appearances are being judiciously spaced. The
Nelson was Mickelson's 12th start of the year, out of a possible
19. His scheduling is part of an overall plan to get more from
his game. He is trying to play a steadier, less crisis-inducing
brand of golf that yields more easy pars and cuts down on
bogeys. Despite not hitting on all cylinders at the Masters, for
example, Mickelson was pleased with his six-under-par 282 total,
which left him one shot behind runner-up Greg Norman. "Things
never really clicked, but I kept myself in the game," he said.
"I played the style I want to play in the majors."
Ironically, a new titanium-headed driver that Mickelson says has
made him 20 yards longer off the tee has also made him a more
restrained player. Because he can launch drives through the fat
part of fairways with the new club, he has been forced to gear
down and hit more three-woods off the tee. As a result he has
been hitting more fairways than ever. Mickelson also is
gradually defeating a tendency to be too bold with his longer
birdie putts. Rather than leaving himself several five- and
six-footers a round to save par, Mickelson has discovered the
restfulness of the tap-in. The entire approach has led to fewer
bogeys. In the 72 holes of the Nelson, Mickelson had only four
and led the field with 57 greens hit in regulation. Said
McBride, "After Saturday's round, I told him, 'Gee, honey, it
hasn't been that emotional watching you play this week. Thanks.'"
Of course, it got emotional on Sunday, but Mickelson has always
had the knack for using that to his advantage. He has achieved
three victories in a season faster than anyone since Couples and
Love each reached the mark in April of 1992. Both those players
curiously did next to nothing for the rest of that year, each
citing the attention and expectation as a deterrent.
It's difficult to see Mickelson falling into the same pattern.
All through junior, amateur and college golf, the 1990 U.S.
Amateur and three-time NCAA champion has been a regular winner,
so the prospect of racking up wins is not intimidating. He has
also developed a cooperative but at the same time arms-length
relationship with the media, one in which he seems firmly in
control. Most important, Mickelson is genuinely drawn not only
to the heat of the challenge but also to the prospect of being
an alltime great player. The only player with more Tour wins at
the same age as Mickelson was Jack Nicklaus, and there is about
Mickelson the same sense of belief in his destiny that Nicklaus
"He's really blessed," says Nick Price, who won four tournaments
in 1993 and five in 1994 before being exhausted by the strain.
"Phil seems very comfortable just going out there and winning."
Mickelson is cautious about appearing to predict big things, but
he does allow as to how "I've played smarter, more solid and
I've been in contention a lot more. I hope I can keep that up."
But just to show that he is aware of how he is being graded and
the minor raps against him, Mickelson, after signing his
scorecard on Sunday, made a point of noting that his victory at
the Nelson inched his well of eight pro victories geographically
to the east. "Bones," he said turning to his caddie, Jim Mackay,
"have I passed the Mississippi?"
"No," replied Mackay quickly, caddies being more familiar with
road atlases than today's players.
When it was noted that Mickelson's next tournament, the Memorial
outside Columbus, is played east of the Mississippi, Mickelson
nodded. Then, with only the trace of a smile, he added, "So is
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN On Sunday, Mickelson conquered the grinding razors in his stomach with a cottony-soft short game. [Phil Mickelson]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Charlie Rymer (above) tied the course record with a 61, while Price had his fourth top-five finish in '96. [Charlie Rymer; Nick Price]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Parry, winless in his four years on Tour, was once more runner-up. [Craig Parry]