There is golf, and then there is tournament golf, as Bobby Jones
used to say. But there is also celebratory golf, and that's what
Phil Mickelson played last week at the HP Classic of New Orleans.
Les bon temps began to roulez on the very first tee at 7:40 a.m.
on April 28, when the pro-am starter announced, "Ladies and
gentlemen, the 2004 Masters champion...."
"Hey!" interrupted a beaming Mickelson. "Will you say that
What followed was 4 1/2 hours of Mardi Gras for the pasture-pool
set. The 2004 Masters champion joked with fans, sampled bayou
cuisine and schmoozed with his pro-am partners. ("Mike, how long
have you been involved with Hewlett-Packard?") He signed
autographs, posed for pictures, handed out golf balls to children
and, finally, in a nice bit of stagecraft, thrilled spectators at
the 17th hole by making a hole in one.
Mickelson's rollicking round had tournament officials nervously
thumbing through the rule book, but they could find no regulation
against having fun on a golf course. In fact, a little-known
subsection of USGA Rule 25-b (Behavior and Sportsmanship)
specifically grants "any tournament professional of 12 or more
years' experience with at least 22 PGA Tour victories not
otherwise deemed major championships the right to celebrate a
first victory in one of those four major championships with a
period of high spirits and frivolity, not to exceed three weeks."
The rule clearly applied to Mickelson, who was making his first
appearance in competition since the evening of April 11, when he
birdied five of the last seven holes at Augusta National to nip
Ernie Els, then the world's second-ranked player, by a stroke.
Do they rank smiles? Mickelson's had spread across his face the
instant he completed that preposterous, froglike victory leap on
the 18th green at Augusta. It was still on display in New
Orleans, even though he had to be getting tired of people asking
him if he slept in the garish green sport coat he got for winning
Some would call it a practiced smile, but there's nothing wrong
with that. Unlike the fantasies of most Tour players, Mickelson's
childhood dream did not end with his making a putt to win the
Masters or the U.S. Open. His dream had him going on to be a
public man, a warm and gracious champion like Bobby Jones, Byron
Nelson or Arnold Palmer. His Masters victory was special,
Mickelson said last week, because "I'll always be the 2004
Masters champion, and I'll be able to be part of that event for
the rest of my life."
So yeah, Philly Mick showed more teeth at Wednesday's pro-am than
the Crescent City had seen since Satchmo left town, and he
pressed more flesh than a working girl on Bourbon Street.
(mickelson comes in on high note, punned a headline writer for
The Times-Picayune, playing off the coincidence that the HP
Classic shares its week with New Orleans Jazzfest.) And never did
Mickelson drift into unscripted reverie or slip out of character.
On the 14th tee, where there was a short wait, he pulled up a
camp chair and settled into it with a sigh of contentment meant
to be heard by the gallery. His caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, sat
on a tee marker.
"Who won here last year, Bones?" Mickelson wondered.
Mickelson nodded. "K.J. Choi won here, too, didn't he?"
"Year before last," volunteered a spectator.
Looking to his left, Mickelson grinned at a television cameraman
creeping in for a close-up. "Pretty exciting, eh?" he declared.
"Guy sitting in a chair?"
A curious observation, that--considering that's how Mickelson had
spent much of his time since the Masters. Sitting in a chair next
to David Letterman. Sitting in a chair next to Jay Leno. Sitting
in a chair next to Craig Kilborn ... Bob Costas ... Dan Patrick.
The 2004 Masters champion also did some stand-ups, most notably
at the New York Stock Exchange, where he rang the bell to open
the markets on April 16. "I was very flattered," he said, "which
is why I did all those things. How often do you get those
Week 2 of the Masters fallout saw Mickelson pulling back a bit.
He flew his wife, Amy, and their three kids to Phoenix to visit
old friends. While there, he spent a day with swing coach Rick
Smith on the practice range at Scottsdale's Whisper Rock Golf
Club. Neither Mickelson nor Smith would discuss their technical
work with outsiders--"It's our secret," Smith joked--but the
coach said he had never seen his student more confident or upbeat
about his game. "Phil's really enjoying this, and nobody deserves
When asked in New Orleans if winning the Masters had taken a load
off his shoulders--the weight of that ponderous tag, Best Player
Never to Have Won a Major--Mickelson insisted that he didn't feel
any different, either as a player or a person. "I don't think
anything changed over four or five days, other than my gaining
the experience of a lifetime," he said. He didn't deny that 2003,
with its succession of scares and insults, had depressed his
spirits. Early last year, after all, he had nearly lost Amy and
son Evan during a delivery gone wrong. That was followed by the
worst season of his pro career: no victories and a plummet to No.
38 on the money list after three straight years at No. 2. The
year bottomed out in November at the Presidents Cup in South
Africa, where the usually reliable team player failed to win a
single point in five matches. Says Mickelson, "It's not a year I
want to dwell on."
Now the old, buoyant Mickelson is back. It's not often that you
see a Tour player so carefree that he needs to be tethered with
four long ropes, like a Macy's Parade balloon. That's probably
why the 2004 Masters champion spent much of his New Orleans
pro-am round adding ballast. On the 4th tee he sampled crawfish
etoufee. ("Just a little bowl," he told the volunteer servers. "I
can't pass it up.") On the 10th tee he downed about a dozen of
his favorite dish, grilled oysters, seasoned with butter,
parmesan and romano cheeses, garlic and a drizzle of lemon.
Behind the 15th green he stopped for a cup of spicy catfish court
bouillon. "Remember the alligator last year?" a server asked.
"Yeah," Mickelson said, "that was excellent."
What came next was also tasty. On the 17th hole, a par-3 playing
about 195 yards to a front-right pin position, the 2004 Masters
champion put a smooth swing on a six-iron and holed it to shrieks
of joy from about 100 spectators watching from mounds. When he
got to the green, Mickelson retrieved his ball with a grin and
turned to the gallery. "How'd it go?" he asked. He then jumped in
the air with his arms and legs spread out, mimicking his Masters
Ideally, celebratory golf can serve as preparation for tournament
golf. Mickelson, however, dismissed the notion that he had
already begun to focus on the season's second major, the U.S.
Open to be played June 17-20 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in
Southampton, N.Y. He blushed and stammered when asked by a
reporter if the Grand Slam was in his thoughts. (Answer: Not
yet.) But anybody who has watched Mickelson's game sharpen in
2004 senses that everything he does is aimed at producing a
player-of-the-year season. To that end, he will prepare for the
Open as he did at Augusta for the Masters, playing a couple of
practice rounds at Shinnecock under the watchful eyes of Smith
and short-game coach Dave Pelz.
In the meantime, all the 2004 Masters champion wanted from the
Big Easy was confirmation that his game was where he had left it
before he started pursuing his "opportunities." He got that
confirmation on Thursday afternoon. Mickelson came out shooting
at flags and made the turn in four-under-par 32. Unfortunately,
English Turn Golf & Country Club was in the path of a series of
thunderstorms and pelting rains that forced the Tour to extend a
tournament to a Monday finish for the second straight week.
Mickelson's round was interrupted after 14 holes and couldn't be
resumed until early Saturday morning, when he finished with a
five-under 67. His second round, begun after a short break,
benefited from light winds, soft greens and a
lift-clean-and-place rule, which allowed him to attack pins with
impunity and shoot 65. "Phil showed no rust at all," said Matt
Kuchar, his playing partner for both rounds. "He's riding a wave
Not to mention a wave of public sentiment. One family of Phil
fans at English Turn sought his autograph by having their little
girl display a hand-decorated sign reading mickie is lefty,
please sign. A 12-year-old boy, refusing to leave the course with
his friends because "I have to tell Phil something," waited a
half hour for Mickelson to finish a practice session. When
Mickelson finally came over, the boy said, "I wanted you to know
that my mom cried when you won the Masters."
Nobody was going to cry if Mickelson won the HP Classic--except
maybe Vijay Singh, whose rain suit was still wet from his victory
in the Shell Houston Open, or Joe Ogilvie, the third-round
leader. On Monday, Mickelson went out under a clear blue sky and
shot 66 to finish a shot behind Singh in a tie for second with
Ogilvie. It was Mickelson's ninth top 10 finish in 10 starts this
Before he left New Orleans, the 2004 Masters champion landed yet
another of those "opportunities" that have come to him of
late--an invitation to be grand marshal of next February's Mardi
Gras parade through the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Asked if
he would describe the parade as a major, famed New Orleans
restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich said, "On a bad day we get a half
million or three quarters of a million people. On a good day,
with someone like Phil Mickelson leading the parade, it's more
like a million."
Mickelson, he didn't have to add, looked like a fellow who would
be comfortable riding a float through a blizzard of streamers and
confetti. And not simply because he's the 2004 Masters champion.
There, we said it again.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL SPRING IN HIS STEP Mickelson didn't miss a beat despite a two-week layoff, tying for second in New Orleans.
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL DRINKWATER/NBC STAR TURN In the wake of Augusta, Lefty did Leno (top), met friend Norrie West (center) in La Jolla, Calif., and was besieged in the Big Easy.
COLOR PHOTO: DENNIS POROY/AP [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL GRAND PLAN Mickelson and his coaches, Pelz and Smith, will check out Shinnecock this month.
"I was very flattered," Mickelson said, "which is why I did all
those things. HOW OFTEN DO YOU GET THOSE OPPORTUNITIES?"
When Mickelson came over, the young boy told him, "I wanted you
to know that MY MOM CRIED WHEN YOU WON THE MASTERS."