It seems a little ridiculous to use the word comeback when
talking about Phil Mickelson. After all, the guy has won 10
times in less than five years, and he's only 27. Yet that's the
word Mickelson himself was throwing around last week while he
was easily winning his 11th Tour event, the Sprint International
at Castle Pines, outside Denver.
It's not that anyone has forgotten Mickelson, the smooth
southpaw for whom big things were predicted back in 1992 when he
joined the Tour after winning a U.S. Amateur and three NCAA
titles. He hasn't even been a mild disappointment. Last year,
for example, he won four times and was second on the money list.
Isn't that meeting expectations?
Since last December, though, he has married, bought a house near
Phoenix and been certified to fly jets. In most walks of life,
these would be considered good things. In golf they're known as
distractions, particularly in this new age of Tiger Woods, Ernie
Els and Justin Leonard, when all that people want to know is how
you've done in the majors. On that score Mickelson's 0 for 17
might as well be written in blinking neon.
Except for his victory in the Bay Hill Invitational in March,
Mickelson had been having an indifferent year before the
International. He was 19th on the money list but having a hard
time cracking any tournament's top 10 (three in 16 starts). That
was hurting him in the Ryder Cup standings, in which he had
drifted from fourth to ninth, jeopardizing his spot on the U.S.
The majors, the season, the Ryder Cup--they all were on
Mickelson's mind when he flew a leased jet into Centennial
Airport just south of Denver a couple of days before the
International. He knew that he had only three more tournaments
left in which to earn Ryder Cup points, but he also was
confident because he usually plays well in Colorado--he won the
1990 U.S. Amateur at Denver's Cherry Hills as well as the '93
International--and likes the modified Stableford scoring system
(eight points for double eagle, five for eagle, two for birdie,
zero for par, minus one for bogey and minus three for anything
worse) used at the International.
By Sunday night, after he had won the tournament, and $306,000,
with a record 48 points (seven more than runner-up Stuart
Appleby), two of Mickelson's three objectives had been achieved.
The season was saved and the Ryder Cup team made. Now what about
the majors? "When I came on Tour in the summer of '92, I was 22
years old and really believed that by 27 I'd have won not only
one [major], but a few," Mickelson says. "To have zero is
disappointing. This year guys I grew up with and competed
against as amateurs won majors. I feel I should be able to do
that as well."
Mickelson's first order of business last week, though, was
qualifying for the Ryder Cup. Heading into the tournament, eight
players seemed to have assured themselves of places on the
team--Woods, Tom Lehman, Leonard, Jim Furyk, Mark O'Meara, Brad
Faxon, Scott Hoch and Tommy Tolles. Mickelson and Davis Love
III, the 10th player on the points list, were being pushed by
Jeff Maggert, Steve Jones, Mark Brooks and Paul Stankowski.
By winning the tournament, however, Mickelson jumped to fifth on
the list and guaranteed himself a spot on the team. Love
finished 12th at Castle Pines, but because only the top 10 earn
Cup points, did not improve his situation. Not to worry. Love
revealed that captain Tom Kite told him that even if he drops
out of the top 10, he will be one of the two captain's picks.
"It's a nice place for me to be," Love says. "I know Tom really
wants me on the team."
Kite missed the second cut last week, the one after Saturday's
round that reduced the field to 24 players for Sunday, but he
wasn't nearly as interested in his own game as he was in
scrutinizing the play of those who might make his team. Before
the tournament Kite said he was rooting for Love and Mickelson
because they have Ryder Cup experience and the U.S. is going to
have a lot of green players. Woods, Leonard, Furyk, Hoch and
Tolles will be rookies. Faxon and Lehman, like Mickelson, first
played in the Ryder Cup in 1995, which makes O'Meara, with three
appearances--but a 2-5-1 record--the senior man among those sure
to qualify on points. Many believe that Kite must use his picks
on veterans, but he's not saying.
"I have a very short list, maybe 10 or 11 guys," Kite says, "but
whether I'll end up choosing veterans, I don't know. It depends
on who qualifies for the team."
Anybody looking for more clues might want to analyze Kite's
comments about Valderrama, where the match will be played on
Sept. 26-28. "It's a precision course," he says. "There are
holes where you've got to put it in a certain place off the tee."
Mickelson can do that. After he had taken the second-round lead
at Castle Pines, he was asked if he and Love, who was one of his
playing partners the first two days, had discussed the Ryder Cup
situation. "We have," Mickelson said. "Speaking of which, when
is the deadline to commit to the Buick Open?"
"About 10 minutes from now," said a nearby Tour official.
"Well, I'm going to commit to that," said Mickelson, "and then
if things go well here over the weekend, maybe I'll get sick."
Memo to the Buick Open: Phil can't come out to play. He's
suffering from a severe case of comebackitis.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Mickelson's victory locked up a spot on the Ryder Cup team. [Phil Mickelson]