Calculated aggression yields masterful result for retooled Mickelson

Augusta winner plays past into brighter future

Golf

April 13, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, GA. — AUGUSTA, Ga.-- When Phil Mickelson was finishing his most difficult season as a professional golfer last fall, the player known for winning his share of tournaments and millions of dollars in prize money -- but no major championships -- finally realized that he had to make a change.

Rick Smith, who had been working with Mickelson on his swing as well as his mental approach to the game for nearly six years, knew that the pupil would listen to the teacher. During their time together, Mickelson had won nearly half of his 22 PGA Tour victories and a good percentage of $24 million in career prize money.

"He's won all these golf tournaments in a dominating fashion, and I think his objective was to be greater in really hard environments," Smith recalled.

"It's a player's choice [to change]. You can say it all, but it has to take the player to make that decision," he said, noting that someone with more than 20 wins has "a right to be a little stubborn. That's pretty powerful."

Perhaps, but not as powerful as winning a major, as the 33-year-old Mickelson did Sunday night with his one-stroke, one-for-the-ages victory over Ernie Els of South Africa in the 68th Masters at Augusta National. It was the first major of a career that had been pockmarked by near misses.

By changing his swing and playing more controlled cut shots rather than going strictly for power and distance, and by drawing on tactics Smith had learned while working with Jack Nicklaus, Mickelson put himself in position to charge from behind rather than choke from ahead.

"I have much better control over distance and direction," Mickelson said an hour or so after making his fifth birdie on a bogeyless back nine, with an 18-foot putt on the par-4 18th hole. "I didn't feel like I was pushing the envelope. I was shooting for birdies. I was going after it. You don't shoot 31 [on the back] playing for pars."

What Nicklaus had taught Smith about Augusta National was passed on to Mickelson. If you're going to miss your target on the greens, miss left or right rather than short or long. That way, the cost usually will be a longer putt rather than strokes thrown away in ponds, creeks, sand traps and azalea bushes.

The epiphany came on the par-3 12th hole, a treacherous and often crucial swing hole.

"I aimed at the pin, and I just knew that this certain swing was not going to allow the ball to go right," said Mickelson, who after sharing the lead going into the final round was two strokes behind Els at the time. "I just wanted to make sure it wasn't going to go too far left, and it went three or four yards left and wound up 12 feet from the hole."

Mickelson then made the putt for birdie.

"I knew then that I could win," he said later.

Though it took a few more holes for Mickelson to catch Els, and eventually pass the three-time major champion with the putt on the 18th green, that tee shot on 12 summed up Mickelson's masterful performance. It was calculated aggression rather than the swing-for-the-fences and wind-up-in-the-trees approach Mickelson had taken throughout his career.

"He wants to win, he wants to win a lot more," said Smith, who along with short-game guru Dave Pelz had worked with Mickelson here early last week. "He wants to be more consistent, which he has showed all year, coming in here with seven out of eight top 10s. More drives in the fairway, more greens in regulation."

In January, Mickelson ended an 18-month winless stretch by taking the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

His Masters victory, for which he received $1,170,000, could be seen as vindication of Mickelson's effort to balance golf and being a better father and husband. There were times in the past few years as he and his wife, Amy, were raising their young children -- daughters Amanda, 4, and Sophia, 2 1/2 and son, Evan, 13 months -- when some thought Mickelson's focus on family activities had taken away any chance of his winning a major.

"I think for me personally it makes the wins so much more fulfilling to have such an incredible life partner and to have three healthy, fun kids to be a part of our life," Mickelson said. "It doesn't make everything all about golf, but when things go well today, it makes it so much more enjoyable to be able to share it."

It also makes Mickelson value the tough times as well. None was more anxious than last year, particularly off the course. Amy Mickelson had a difficult pregnancy and an even more dangerous delivery. It caused Mickelson to miss the entire Florida swing on the PGA Tour, setting up a year in which he fell from second to 38th on the money list.

This year was different.

Mickelson, who has always struggled to keep his weight down and conditioning at a high level, has worked harder in both areas. He spent countless hours on chipping and putting with Pelz, and nearly as much time refining his mechanics and swing thoughts with Smith. It all came together on a magical back nine Sunday in the Masters.

"I had a different feeling playing this week," Mickelson said later. "I had a different feel entering this tournament. I had a real belief that I was going to come through this week. I didn't want to get too excited because I had had that belief a number of times before and it didn't happen. I felt very calm."

One of those times, when he lost to Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, Mickelson said he thought he would win multiple majors.

And now?

"One isn't really a bunch," he said. "But it's a nice start. I hope it does lead to more, but right now I want to cherish this one."

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