A master of one, Mickelson looks to tee up No. 2

Masters: Having shaken his major jinx, the defending champion tries to move into second gear this week.

Golf

April 03, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Winning the Masters can propel a player to greatness: From Byron Nelson to Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods, taking home the coveted green jacket from Augusta National as a memento of your first major championship is often the launching pad for a legend.

It can also turn out to be just a memorable week, and nothing more, something to which players such as Bob Goalby can attest. It was Goalby who benefited the most from Roberto DeVincenzo's gaffe of signing an incorrect scorecard in 1968.

So where does last year's first-time major champion fit in?

Since winning the biggest tournament in a career known mostly for being one of golf's perennial groomsmen - not as snakebit as Greg Norman, who won only two majors and finished second seven times - Phil Mickelson hasn't yet backed it up with a second major title.

Mickelson doesn't seem frustrated, given what it took to get the first; rather, he believes he's on the verge of winning multiple majors.

"I think that after having gone such a long period of time, 12 years, without winning a major and having won so many other regular tour events, I think that I appreciated that first major championship more than I ever could have, had it come quicker," said Mickelson, 34.

"Those close calls after the Masters made me believe that I'm very, very close to breaking through and having an exceptional career in the majors, as opposed to the one that I have right now."

While he finished second in last year's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and third in the British Open at Royal Troon - among a dozen top fours at major championships during his impressive career - Mickelson continues to seek more perfection.

Mickelson changed equipment right before last year's Ryder Cup, drawing criticism after the U.S. team lost to Europe. As significantly, he turned away from a more conservative game that helped him tame his wildness off the tee, but eventually displayed signs of dominance earlier this year.

New year, new success

When Mickelson returns to Augusta this week for the 69th Masters, which is set to begin Thursday, more than two months will have elapsed since his back-to-back wins at Scottsdale and Pebble Beach, where he shot a round of 60 in one and 62 in the other to distance himself from the field in both.

"It certainly feels great to win, to see hard work pay off," said Mickelson, whose latest victories gave him 25 on the PGA Tour in a 13-year career and helped vault him to his current spot as No. 1 in earnings this season and No. 4 in the world rankings.

Will there be more pressure on Mickelson this year in the majors, trying to prove that last year wasn't just a fluke?

"I don't feel like the mentality to win the second [major] is really any different than trying to win the first," Mickelson said in a national teleconference earlier this year. "Certainly my pre-tournament press conference is a little bit more enjoyable for me [with no questions about why he hasn't won a major].

"Other than that, I think that it's still the same challenge of trying to bring my game out and get ready and prepare for each particular course. What I have found is that the preparation that worked well at Augusta also worked very well for the other three majors and it's what I'm keeping up this year to get ready for the four majors."

Truth is, more has been expected out of Mickelson after he sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of last year's Masters, raised his arms and his putter in both triumph and relief, displayed what many have described as his "8-inch vertical leap" and backed up his immense popularity among fans with something more substantive.

Mickelson expects more from himself as well.

"Well, there's always room for improvement," he said. "The thing I'm most excited about is the way I've scored, the way I've been able to apply all of my practice and have it carry over to lowering my scores. I will continue to drive the ball or try to drive the ball more accurately while not having to sacrifice any distance now."

In sacrificing accuracy for distance off the tee last year, Mickelson also played a style that belied his image of a gambler, one that on the course had cost him a chance at several majors (he had finished second in majors four times previous to last year's Masters) and off the course had helped him win a reported $340,000 bet on the Ravens prior to their Super Bowl season in 2000.

Mental adjustment

The change in philosophy came when Dave Pelz, the noted short-game guru who started working with Mickelson last year, discovered that the new softer golf ball Mickelson used was very effective with shorter irons, thus making it necessary for shorter approach shots on the par-4s and 5s. Combined with the cut shots off the tee that swing teacher Rick Smith worked on with Mickelson, he became a different player.

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