Mickelson changes attitude, game's latitude

The Masters

April 11, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Life is so simple when you aim for the middle of the fairway, when you stop crushing and start aiming, when you open your eyes and look.

Maybe that's why Phil Mickelson's time has come.

Yesterday, at the 11th tee, Mickelson stopped and spread a white towel onto the green grass. He was in the lead at this Masters, holding a 6-under, one-stroke lead over Chris DiMarco. But everything was OK. Mickelson sat down, crossed his legs and slowly stretched.

Ahead of him, Ernie Els was rooting around in the woods off to the right of the fairway. Els, who was challenging Mickelson, DiMarco and Paul Casey for the lead, had hooked his tee shot into the brush.

Amen Corner was going to cost Els a few strokes, but was he going to take Mickelson down with him by making Mickelson wait, giving him time to lose momentum, snap out of his game plan, and revert to old habits that used to get him into all kinds of dumb trouble?

Els pleaded with officials for a drop. Mickelson just waited and chilled. Yoga, or so it seems, has come to Mickelson. Ol' Lefty has assumed the pose and composure of someone who has discovered the perfect mantra.

It goes exactly like this: "It's just a much easier game keeping it in play."

He said that! Finally!

Ah, the secret of golf, wrapped in the fortune cookie of Mickelson's 42 misses in 42 major tournaments - and that doesn't include the three he missed as an amateur.

If that stat isn't enough to force you to consider a change, what would? No wonder that by adopting a smarter, more mature, par-saving strategy, Mickelson notched a 3-under 69 yesterday, securing part of a two-shot lead with DiMarco heading into today's final round.

Used to be when someone called Mickelson a "risk taker," they were being kind - at least compared with what others, including his former caddie, have called him. But Mickelson has seen the light.

"It's just a much easier game keeping it in play. I wish somebody would have told me this earlier," he said, laughing at his former stubbornness.

Such is the new Phil Mickelson.

There is a lot of promise in this version of Mickelson, who confessed to being much more at ease, much less anxious, less inclined to worry about how he'll drive the ball or whether his swing will be there.

"I don't feel that anxiety. I haven't felt it all year," he said, serene as the placid atmosphere of this hushed and ivory tinkling major.

He's ready for his close-up, CBS.

The old Phil Mickelson was a lot of fun. The old Mickelson would hit the tee box, his inner voice telling him to rip it to shreds, attack the pin.

The old Mickelson believed that to be cautious was to be boring.

He was a barrel of laughs, the lovable loser whose recklessness cost him majors, but, oh, wasn't it nice to have so much sympathy and warm wishes heaped upon you?

Eleven times, Mickelson has come here and found a way not to win, including the last three years finishing third. The galleries for him yesterday swelled and yelled, hinting that in his 12th appearance, the greater golf world would not mind seeing Mickelson finally get the green jacket.

Get ready for a very interesting Sunday. The new Phil Mickelson is ready. The new Mickelson is in the zone.

Look at the leader board at Augusta. Nowhere do you find the name Tiger Woods.

Woods, with those three green jackets, has been Mickelson's nemesis - or such is the perception.

Mickelson could barely contain his glee yesterday at not having Woods within striking distance for today's Augusta finale.

"It won't suck," Mickelson said.

He refused to elaborate, but on every other point Mickelson made both on the golf course and in his demeanor, the new Mickelson exuded a confidence and serenity that speaks of an athlete who is completely, totally in peak form.

Golf is golf, even at Augusta; especially at Augusta: the struggle of maintaining inner calm as the long, green, beautiful beast tries to beat the heck out of you. The trick is to give over to the beast - let it dictate what and when you make a move.

If Mickelson has a chance today, it's because he's finally figured this out.

"I think the biggest thing for me is I didn't give shots away in an effort to make birdies. I think that's where I'm saving shots.

"I may not be making as many birdies, but I'm not throwing nearly as many away," he said.

He has other mantras, too. Like how sometimes saving par gives you as much momentum as making birdies. Like how it's better to take something off a swing, to take accuracy over length; fairways over two-stroke penalties for errant shots lost in the trees.

This is Mickelson's Masters to win, but it's not because Woods (75-69-75) is off-kilter.

This is Mickelson's Masters to win, but not because he hasn't won a major in 42 attempts.

This is his to win because he finally gets it.

"It just kind of clicked," he said.

We shall see.

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