Good rockin' tonight: Mickelson finds end of long and winding road

OTHER VOICES

August 16, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg

DIRECTOR Quentin Tarantino is no Johnny Miller, but in the DVD version of the movie Pulp Fiction, there's a scene that wasn't shown in theaters involving Uma Thurman's character that I've always felt beautifully explains the universe, and in turn, the PGA Tour.

"My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there's only two ways a person can answer," Thurman tells John Travolta. "For example, there's two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are."

If you like Tiger Woods, you're a Beatles person. Watching the PGA Championship this weekend, you couldn't help but be wowed by Woods' creativity and his brilliance, even though he finished in a tie for fourth. Like the Beatles, Tiger sets the standard. He takes the game to places it's never been, makes complicated shots look easy, and generations from now, we'll still be talking about him. He's got John's arrogance and imagination, Paul's genius and flair, George's willingness to take risks as well as his fierce desire for privacy, and like Ringo, fame has allowed him to marry a woman who, let's be honest, is way out of his league.

You can even make the case that Tiger's decision to remake his swing after he won four consecutive majors in 2000-01 is sort of like the Beatles reinventing themselves with Sgt. Pepper in 1967 after they had already arguably achieved perfection with Rubber Soul and then Revolver. The truly great artists, is seems, will forever be the ones who are constantly tweaking, the ones who can't be satisfied unless they're breaking new ground.

And yet, despite all that, I'm an Elvis guy, even though I like and respect the Beatles. And that's the best explanation of why thousands of golf fans like me spent the last two days pumping their fists and pouring their hearts out, cheering on Phil Mickelson as he won the PGA Championship, the second major of his career.

Like Mickelson, Elvis came first, bursting onto the scene in the mid-1950s, oozing both potential and charisma. Elvis' smile, just like Mickelson's, was one of a kind. Unless you were into Pat Boone for some strange reason (the Davis Love III of his time), The King, with his jet-black hair and his smooth baritone voice, was the epitome of cool. And so when Mickelson showed up at Augusta for the first time in 1991 as a 20-year-old amateur, and shot 69 with booming drives and a magical short game - leading many people to suggest he might be the next Jack Nicklaus - it looked like the start of something big, just like Elvis' initial demo sessions for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1954.

Over the years, though, the parallels haven't always been so wonderful. Like Elvis, Mickelson didn't always have the most flattering physique, and in time, his love handles also became fodder for wisecracks. Both made questionable career decisions at times - Elvis with some of his movie roles, and Mickelson with his bizarre stint as a minor league baseball player - and oddly enough, both seemed to sweat a ton under the bright lights.

Mickelson's perspiration was more figurative, however, while Elvis' was more literal. On the final day of a major, nobody came up short more often than Lefty, whether it was because he gagged on a crucial three-foot putt or because someone simply outplayed him. After a while, even his legion of followers began to suspect we'd see Heartbreak Hotel every time it really counted, especially if Tiger was lurking.

Oddly enough, it didn't cause our affections for him to wane. It fact, Mickelson's failures only made him more lovable. His critics quietly called him a phony, which seemed odd, considering the alternatives. Few people voiced similar concerns about Woods, a man so cold and calculating that one was never certain where his personality stopped and where the marketing department for Buick and Nike began. But Mickelson? Him we could relate to. He gambled a bit, ate too many cheeseburgers, and he loved his wife and kids. If he never won anything bigger than the Mercedes Championship, was that really so awful?

Supposedly, everything changed last year at Augusta, when Lefty shot a blistering back-nine 31 to steal the Masters from Ernie Els and win his first major championship. But until yesterday, I admit, I was worried it might have simply been a fluke. It was so refreshing to see Mickelson giving out high-fives left and right to the gallery on Sunday when play was suspended because of bad weather, but it was gut-wrenchingly typical to watch him fritter away the lead.

And so when Mickelson tapped in for birdie on 18 yesterday for the win, after an incredible flop shot from rough so deep you could barely see the tops of his shoes, I could hardly believe it. Lefty seemed perfectly calm, like he expected this all along, but like so many of his fans, I have to admit, for a moment, I was All Shook Up.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a sports reporter for The Sun.

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