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Phearless Phil Phil Mickelson started the season with a bang, outdueling the game's biggest guns


Phil Mickelson welcomes pressure with a zeal that must tempt the
golf gods. On Sunday as he climbed onto the 7th tee at the La
Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., during the final round
of the season-opening Mercedes Championships, Mickelson looked
like the fall guy in a cosmic comeuppance.

Only 50 yards away, he could see Tiger Woods thrusting his left
fist skyward as his 40-foot eagle putt on the 9th hole
disappeared into the cup. Amid the ensuing din Mickelson figured
out that the five-stroke lead he had held over Woods at the
start of the day was down to one. Then, as Mickelson further
considered the awful possibilities, Mark O'Meara, paired with
Woods, holed a 15-footer for birdie that also brought him within
a stroke.

In the recent but largely forgotten days when Mickelson, not
Woods, was the consensus choice as the future of golf, no one
would have bet against him in such a situation. Mickelson was a
legend in the making, an NCAA and a U.S. Amateur champion, a
short-game genius and, above all, a fearless closer with a gift
for winning.

A lot happened in a short time to dim that aura. In 1997, while
the rise of golf's dominating twentysomethings was the talk of
the Tour, the 27-year-old Mickelson's stock actually sank. Lefty
won two tournaments, but his accomplishments paled compared with
Woods's historic win at the Masters, Justin Leonard's first
victory in a major, Ernie Els's second U.S. Open triumph and
David Duval's three wins in a row. Mickelson's 11 PGA Tour
victories were as many as Leonard's, Els's and Duval's combined,
but he ended the year without finishing better than 24th in a
major. More tellingly, Mickelson had become strangely fragile
during the big moments.

Suddenly he was missing crucial short putts, spraying important
drives and approach shots and mismanaging his game in the
clutch. Mickelson grabbed the lead early in the third round of
last year's PGA Championship only to immediately make a double
bogey and eventually crash-land in 29th place. He missed two
six-footers at the end of matches in the Ryder Cup, costing the
U.S. a critical point. In December, Mickelson blew the lead on
the final nine at the Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa
with wild approaches that led to killing bogeys.

On the 1st hole of his final round at La Costa, which he began
with a one-stroke lead over Duval, Mickelson looked like a
prisoner to the pattern by nervously three-putting from 25 feet.
He righted himself with birdies on the 3rd and 4th holes, but
what he saw from the 7th tee amounted to a taunt from a
particularly obnoxious golf god: "You want pressure, Phil? I got
your pressure."

But, in fact, Mickelson would hear none of that. He was instead
repeating a mantra created after his recent disappointments.
"Seeing Tiger's eagle changed my whole mind-set," said
Mickelson. "I've decided that on Sundays I need to focus on one
thought: whatever it takes to win." So he pulled out a
seven-iron, defied the water hazard to the left of the 188-yard,
par-3 hole and rifled a majestic shot directly over the flag to
within 10 feet of the cup. Though he missed the putt, something
more significant than Woods's eagle had transpired. Mickelson
the closer was back.

Although Woods and O'Meara, playing three holes ahead, would
each make three more birdies over their final nine for closing
64s, Mickelson kept topping them. When Woods birdied the par-5
12th to take the lead, Mickelson promptly tied him with a birdie
on the 9th. Using the same long, rhythmic putting stroke that
was so highly thought of earlier in his career but has been
criticized of late, Mickelson holed five birdie putts ranging
from 30 feet to a foot over the last 10 holes for a closing 68
and a 17-under 271 total, one better than O'Meara's and Woods's.

As an opening act, the Mercedes, which brings together the
winners of last year's Tour events, was a smash. A
Mickelson-Woods showdown has long been anticipated, and this one
had every dramatic element short of a head-to-head stare down.
Even on a La Costa course so soggy from rain that the players
were allowed to lift, clean and place their balls during the
final three rounds, the play was testimony to the Tour's new
slogan: "These guys are good."

In addition to winning $306,000, Mickelson stopped Duval, his
playing partner on Sunday, from becoming the first player since
Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four tournaments in a row. Actually,
Duval stopped himself when he missed a 2 1/2-foot birdie putt on
the 1st hole that would have given him the lead. His closing 73
put him in a tie for sixth, six strokes behind Mickelson.

More important, Mickelson stood up to Woods, who served notice
that he will likely spread as much fear as he did last year. The
22-year-old Woods, who received the Jack Nicklaus Trophy last
week after his peers selected him as the Tour's outstanding
player of 1997, opened with a 72 that included a four-putt and a
three-putt, which he attributed to nerves. In the second round,
using new irons that lower his ball flight and improve his
distance control, Woods righted himself with a 67.

Overcoming Woods's charge allowed Mickelson to turn a
third-round lead into a victory for the sixth time in seven
opportunities. Still, there was no gloating after his 12th
career win. He has a quality that most champions share: He's
hard on himself. Although some of the criticism he received last
year stung, particularly the talk that he had been passed by
Duval, Els, Leonard and Woods, Mickelson could not disagree. "In
college I had a pretty good record against a lot of those guys,
and not being able to compete at that same level was
disappointing," he said after Sunday's round. "They deserved the
attention because they won. If I felt left out, it was my own
fault and something I needed to make amends for."

At the end of last season Mickelson resolved to work harder,
especially on the practice green. Although he's capable of the
brilliance he demonstrated on Sunday, Mickelson habitually putts
too aggressively and leaves himself difficult comebackers. He
has finally accepted the fact that having to make so many
five-footers can erode one's confidence. At La Costa his
approach putts were usually followed by tap-ins.

Mickelson also decided that his impatience was keeping him out
of contention. Because he's so adept with the lob wedge, he had
been guilty of missing greens on the same side as the pin, which
the pros call short-siding. That's a mistake that leads to
bogeys. On Sunday when Mickelson erred, it was to the wide side.

Last year when he was in the hunt, Mickelson felt he wasn't
mentally tough in the final round. "If I hit the ball poorly in
preround practice, I might have started wondering what my swing
looked like and gotten caught up in mechanics," he said. "That
really doesn't matter. It comes down to a whatever-it-takes
attitude." As he did on Sunday, that's a thought Mickelson will
rely on to meet his most important goal in '98: winning his
first major. "That will come very shortly for Phil," says Woods.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself," Mickelson says. "There
are things I'd like to accomplish leading up to Augusta that
will better my chances at the Masters."

After what Mickelson overcame at La Costa, the golf gods owe him

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Phil Mickelson golfing]