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Masterof the Masses

Cheered on by the largest crowds in Tour history, people's choice Phil Mickelson showed why he will also be a force in 2005 at the FBR Open

Last Saturday night FBR Open leader Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, ordered room service at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort and spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., and made plans to go for a workout and then play with their three small children after dinner. The plan changed when the Mickelsons, channel surfing, stumbled on a rebroadcast of last year's Masters. Instead of going to the gym, they watched Phil win the Masters again, reliving those delicious moments from last April. "It never gets old," said Amy as she followed her man around the TPC of Scottsdale the next day. ¶ Winning anything on the PGA Tour never gets old, which is good, because her husband now has 24 Tour victories. He put away the erstwhile Phoenix Open in style, accidentally holing a 26-foot putt for birdie on the 72nd hole. The roar that followed was so loud and so sustained that even back on the clubhouse veranda everyone knew who had done what. "I guess Phil birdied 18," said fellow pro Steve Flesch, straining to make himself heard over the din. ¶ If navy is the new black, then Phil is the new Arnie--beloved (unlike Tiger, who is respected and feared and exciting, win or lose. Mickelson officially became America's Sweetheart at the 2002 U.S. Open, during which the fans at Bethpage made him the sentimental favorite because of his then 0-for-40 record in the majors. But Phil-watching has long been a popular pastime in Phoenix, where Mickelson was a college star at Arizona State and a resident until three years ago, when he moved to his hometown, San Diego. Plus, there are a heck of lot more fans at the FBR than at any Open. Last week an estimated 517,847 people, including a Tour-record 165,168 on Saturday, swarmed over the TPC of Scottsdale.

About 9,000 of those fans showed Mickelson some special love at the Funhouse, the raucous 162-yard 16th hole that is ringed by grandstands, skyboxes and spectator mounds (box, page 59). One group of fans hung a banner over the railing of the grandstand that read The House That Phil Built. Five college students were more creative, every day donning green jackets as a way to pay homage to Phil's Masters victory. (The five Minnesota refugees showed the depth of their love on Saturday by wearing the coats over purple-and-white Vikings jerseys. One of them, Mike Leonard, also wore a black fright wig with his number 84 Randy Moss jersey, providing a scary glimpse of the future if Moss should ever win a Masters.) The group, which has held a reunion of sorts at 16 for the past few years, bombarded players with chants as innocuous as "Tip your hat! Tip your hat!" and as biting as "One more club! One more club!" after Len Mattiace hit a shot that landed in the front bunker. They worked up their material with the help of a tip sheet of background info on the players. Hot items on this year's sheet: Aaron Baddeley has a dog named Brutus, Briny Baird's real first name is Michael, and Fredrik Jacobson once was a nationally ranked table-tennis player in Sweden. The four pages of data were compiled by Leonard, a student at Gustavus Adolphus, but he and his cronies didn't need any Tour trivia to prep for Mickelson.

"As soon as Phil won the Masters," said Ashley Plumb, an Arizona State student from suburban Minneapolis, "Mike and I called each other and said, 'We've got to get green jackets for Phoenix next year.'"

Mickelson spotted them in the coats during the first round. "He went nuts," Plumb said. "He took his hat off and was smiling, laughing and pointing. It was great."

By Mickelson's count, he came within five strokes of winning the Grand Slam in 2004. He was second by two shots in the U.S. Open, missed a playoff at the British Open by one and was a couple of strokes shy of the PGA Championship playoff. Then he famously flamed out at September's Ryder Cup, during which he lost two matches while paired with his nemesis, Woods. Mickelson was widely criticized for changing equipment only two weeks before the event, so it had to qualify as irony that he won in Phoenix with yet another bag of brand new sticks plus a new ball, all made by Callaway. Last year Mickelson lost 10.6 yards off the tee, going from a 306.0-yard driving average to 295.4 as he attempted to play a more controlled game. He says he has regained those lost yards, with no loss of control, with his new titanium driver. For the week Mickelson hit 60.7% of the fairways, ranking only 51st in the field, but when he did find the short grass, he was deadly. From the 34 fairways he hit, he made 18 of his 23 birdies.

In November, Mickelson shot a 59 while winning the Grand Slam of Golf, a made-for-TV event featuring the winners of the year's majors. He spent the short off-season working on a book with Amy, One Magical Sunday (But Winning Isn't Everything), a collection of golf stories and recollections intertwined with a look back at the final round of the '04 Masters. "[The book] was difficult, time-consuming and a lot harder than I thought," Mickelson says, "so I wasn't quite as sharp in San Diego." (Mickelson finished 56th at the Buick Invitational, his first start this year.)

He also looked sluggish opening the FBR. He missed the first six fairways, shot four over par on the opening nine and appeared likely to miss the cut on a bizarre day when play was stopped for a half hour due to 36-mph winds that pushed balls all over the TPC of Scottsdale's slick greens. Two late birdies helped him salvage a two-over-par 73--the highest first-round score by a Phoenix winner since 1944. The next day, in calm conditions, he birdied the last five holes to shoot 60, his career low on Tour, and tie 21-year-old Kevin Na for the lead. The highlight came when Mickelson drove the green at the 332-yard, par-4 17th, then holed what he estimated to be a 95-foot putt for eagle. (The Tour said the putt was 77 feet long, but either way....) A third-round 66 gave Mickelson a four-shot lead, and while no one got closer than three on Sunday, he made things exciting by spraying tee shots so far off-line that he had to go on safari before brilliantly scrambling to save pars. The cognoscenti are still marveling about how Woods won without his best stuff last month at the Buick Invitational. Mickelson did the same at the FBR. He struggled mightily coming in, hitting only one of the last seven fairways and three of the final nine greens, yet he shot a two-under 34 on the back side to cap a 68 and win by a personal-best five strokes.

The round was filled with Arnie-like recoveries that made for must-see TV. At the 5th hole, a 453-yard par-4, Mickelson hooked an impossible wedge approach off a junky lie over some trees to within 75 feet of the hole, then nearly made the birdie putt. At the par-5 13th he hit his tee shot under some trees in a waste area, but he rifled a five-iron just short of the green and got up and down for a birdie. At the par-5 15th his drive bled into the water hazard guarding the left side of the fairway. After taking a drop, Mickelson hit a dangerous four-iron that landed just short of the island green, then got up and down to save par. "I thought, Oh, c'mon, isn't this guy ever going to make a mistake?" said Na, who tied for second with Scott McCarron.

Mickelson's win portends great things for the 2005 season. Three of the first five tournaments have been won by the first-, second- and fourth-ranked players in the world: Vijay Singh (Sony Open), Woods (Buick) and now Mickelson, respectively. "Golf is becoming so unpredictable," says Brandel Chamblee, a former Tour player who is an analyst for the Golf Channel. "Now we have five guys--I include Number 3 Ernie Els and Number 5 Retief Goosen--who play well every week. It's great for golf and great for the tournaments. Now an event isn't seen as a failure if it doesn't have Tiger in the field."

Mickelson surely inspires the masses. Maybe it's the semipermanent smile that makes him endearing, or maybe it's the long drives and the sensational recoveries. It could be his history of close calls that makes the rest of us relate. Whatever the reason, we are a nation of Phil-watchers. And as his up-and-down performance in Phoenix made clear again, that never gets old. ■

Welcome to the Funhouse

Anything (almost) goes at the coolest little hole in golf, the 16th at the TPC of Scottsdale

THE VOLUME SEEMED MUTED last Saturday at the Funhouse--a.k.a. the 162-yard 16th hole at the TPC of Scottsdale--and I was beginning to wonder if the par-3 was no longer the loudest, coolest hole on the PGA Tour. As usual, the 9,000 or so fans were there, filling the skyboxes flanking the right side of the hole, the grandstands on the left and the large spectator mound to the right of the green. But something was wrong. At the tunnellike entrance to the tee, where emerging players used to be greeted by a thunderous roar, only a handful of college kids chanted "L-S-U! L-S-U!" at die-hard Tigers fan David Toms. In years past every tee shot was followed by a deafening "Go in the hole!" Not on Saturday. The Funhouse, I feared, had lost its groove.

Soon it became apparent why. The public grandstands adjacent to the tee had been moved 35 yards down the fairway, replaced with more sedate corporate boxes by the Thunderbirds, the group that puts on the FBR Open. Also, armed police stood in the front row of the grandstands facing potential troublemakers. As an added measure, a voice on the public-address system announced, "Quiet on the tee, please!" as each pro got ready to play his shot. "That really works," said a pleased Jock Holliman, the Thunderbird in charge of 16.

Holliman explained the challenge of keeping the lid on 16. "See that kid in the green cap?" he said, pointing to a young man holding a dozen neatly stacked plastic cups. "That's how many beers he's had." Security had removed three fans earlier in the afternoon, and since then, he added, "everything has been calm." The show of force was partially in response to a pair of incidents the day before. When John Daly's threesome showed up sans JD--he had WD'd after a first-round 81--the grandstanders chanted, "Where is Daly? [Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!] He's out drinking! [Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!]" The Thunderbirds thought that chant, as well as the one that went up for world No. 1 Vijay Singh--"Who's your cad-die? [Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!]"--was over the top.

On Saturday the 16th didn't really come to life until Phil Mickelson popped out of the tunnel and was greeted--like old times--with an explosion of sound. Mickelson grinned his goofy grin as he drank in the scene. When he hit his tee shot there was a another thunderclap of noise. When he sank a lengthy par-saving putt minutes later, there was an even louder cascade of sound, if that was possible. The Funhouse, I was reassured, is still the loudest, coolest hole on Tour. --G.V.S.


Photograph by Nick Doan/ICON SMI


Mickelson, who capped a five-shot win with a birdie on the final hole (inset), dazzled the record galleries at the TPC of Scottsdale, including the 9,000 fans who ringed the Funhouse, the par-3 16th hole.



  [See caption above]




Mickelson began spraying his tee shots on Sunday but prevailed with some miraculous recoveries, like this one on 5.




Organizers love the spectacle that is the 16th but added security on Saturday to keep a lid on the frivolity.