Mickelson, Nicklaus bridge gap

John Steadman

April 12, 1991|By John Steadman

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Looking for one last hurrah, Jack Nicklaus, who has won more Masters tournaments than anyone, was describing his first-round performance when suddenly he was joined by an unannounced visitor. It was the kid from the amateur ranks, Phil Mickelson, who unexpectedly walked in on an in-progress news conference.

Nicklaus was relating how it felt to be on the scoreboard with an opening 68, only a shot off the lead, when he was joined by Mickelson, the 20-year-old collegian who is a member of the Arizona State University golf team and holder of the national amateur title.

Young Mickelson fired a 69, 3-under par, in his first competitive trip over the Augusta National course. So there they were -- the foremost established figure in all of golf, representing the past, and the promising, gifted newcomer who is so richly endowed.

Mickelson had been paired with Nick Faldo, who is bidding to be the first man to win three straight Masters, and drove the ball past him virtually all day. Faldo took 72 but the bright face of Mickelson attracted most of the attention.

When Nicklaus noticed that Mickelson had taken a seat alongside him, he turned and volunteered words of advice that were timely and profound.

"A lot of people are going to say he is the next best player in the world," commented Jack. "He's going to have a lot of pressure on his shoulders as any player who is at the top of his sport. A 69 is a very impressive round."

Yes, even overwhelming. Here's a youngster who is on his college varsity and is here competing with the finest professionals from all over the globe. This was his first official trip around Augusta National and 69, under the circumstances, is astounding.

Nicklaus is 51, which makes him 31 years older than Mickelson, but speaks from a high platform of success, winning 20 major tournaments, more than any man in history and handling fame with consistent graciousness. Jack looked out at the crowd of sportswriters and observed, "There is more pressure on Phil than when I came out. In fact, I've gotten more press the last five years, when I haven't been playing well, than when I started."

Mickelson said he was "more excited than nervous" on the first tee when his name was announced. He hailed the spectators for being supportive and used one word to describe Augusta National -- "awesome."

Asked what he thought of the comments Nicklaus had made, the kid answered, "He only said that because I was in the room. It's just a compliment to hear that."

With the press pressing him to say what Nicklaus' words truly meant, the lefthander sagely replied, "I want a little time to think about what he said."

It was a splendid way for one so young, suddenly in the spotlight, to handle himself.

By the mere stroke of circumstance, the eventual successor to Nicklaus' golden crown could have been sitting right alongside him.

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