Mickelson could be right lefty to win Masters

John Steadman

April 10, 1991|By John Steadman

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- No amateur has ever been fitted for the green coat, emblematic of the Masters championship. And a lefthanded golfer has never been able to stand in the winner's circle either.

For long, lean and lethal Phil Mickelson those dual objectives present a paramount chance to achieve a pinnacle that hasn't been attained in the 56 years since The Masters was founded.

Can he be the young knight, riding a hard charger, who makes the breakthrough and shatters twin precedents over these rolling hills of northeast Georgia, otherwise known as the Cathedral of American Golf?

Mickelson, at this point in his young life (he's only 20), doesn't play golf for money. But this past winter, he teed it up in the Tucson Open and beat the pros at their own game. Since Mickelson, a junior at Arizona State University, is an amateur, he couldn't accept the first prize of $180,000. It was a tough price to pay but he didn't complain.

Instead, he collected a trophy and the distinction that went with the realization of finishing ahead of an elite pack of PGA Tour players. Because of adherence to the amateur code, the money was deferred to the two pros who tied for second, Bob Tway and Tom Purtzer.

It's rare when an amateur, playing for exercise and the thrill of the competition, asserts himself against professionals on any golf course, much less Augusta National. In fact, Scott Verplank, taking the 1985 Western Open, and Gene Littler, winning the San Diego Open in 1954, scored with similar long shots as amateurs topping the field in a professional event.

Yet it has never happened in The Masters, although three have finished in second place: Frank Stranahan in 1947, Ken Venturi in 1956 and Charlie Coe in 1961. And Billy Joe Patton was third in his first Masters in 1954, a mere stroke behind Sam Snead, the eventual winner, and Ben Hogan.

As for lefthanders, only six have been here in almost six decades. The best any of the southpaws have been able to do is tie for 15th -- New Zealand's Bob Charles in 1963 and Japan's Yutaka Hagawa in 1982.

This means Mickelson is going to try to climb to exalted places no lefthander or amateur has ever been before. "It's something I've wanted to do, having the chance to be in The Masters," he said. "To actually be playing is going to be incredible."

Yesterday, he stepped off in a practice round with one of the legends of the game, a former king of Augusta, Arnold Palmer, four-time winner of The Masters. And tomorrow, as the U.S. amateur champion, Mickelson will be paired with Nick Faldo, the current Masters champion.

It all evolves into exciting times for Mickelson, who won't admit to being intimidated but does say, "The course is incredible. The feeling, the history, it's all here. I was a spectator two years ago, but this is different. Now I'm inside the ropes."

Mickelson had a golf club placed in his hands by his father, Phil Sr., when he was only 1 1/2 , at their home in San Diego. So he has had ample time to groove his swing. He has the length, but most golfers who make it to The Masters can drive the ball over long distances.

What he has that's even more imposing is a touch with a putter. And here at Augusta National how a golfer handles the greens is an essential element. It was anticipated Mickelson would stay in college through next year, his senior season, before reaching for the rewards of the pro tour.

That seems subject to change. "I will definitely defend my title in the U.S. Amateur and play in the Walker Cup this summer," he said. "After that I don't know."

Right now, he doesn't want for vicarious support. Every amateur, plus the lefthanders of the world, are hoping he's going to bring them the kind of classic attention they've never known before in this acme of all golf endeavors.

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