Cool and confident, Mickelson evolves into a major force

April 10, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, GA. — Augusta, Ga.-- --Not so long ago, we would have waited for Phil Mickelson to start wobbling as the leader in the final round of the Masters, which he was yesterday. He was famous for finding a way to lose, the inevitable result of an 0-for-46 record in major championships through 2003.

But Mickelson, 35, has successfully made what surely is the hardest transformation for any athlete, especially in mid-career. The well-known loser has become a confident, dangerous winner.

It was the other contenders who succumbed to nerves over the final holes at Augusta National yesterday. Tiger Woods missed so many short putts that he said he might go home and shatter his putter. Fred Couples, playing with Mickelson, also missed too many putts. Rocco Mediate put three balls into the water on the 12th hole.

Mickelson never wobbled for even a moment, adrenaline seemingly kicking in to carry him to the end of a long day in which he played 31 holes. He just kept hitting fairways and greens, kept making putts, kept pulling away.

Mr. Shaky is long gone, replaced with a golfing version of lights-out New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Mickelson has now won three of the sport's past nine major championships, one more than Woods in that period.

"Three of nine, that sounds a lot better" than 0-for-46, Mickelson said with a smile.

If his first major title, the 2004 Masters, was his dramatic breakthrough, and his second major, the 2005 PGA Championship, was a validation of that breakthrough, yesterday's victory amounted to his coming out as Woods' equal, no less than that.

A bold and brilliant shot-maker, Mickelson always had the game to match Woods, but he didn't have Woods' capacity for enduring pressure. And as more and more majors slipped away, the larger the obstacle grew.

But once he won one with that 18-foot putt on the last hole at Augusta National two years ago, the doubts vanished, the pressure disappeared and Mickelson was free to maximize his prodigious gifts.

Now, clearly, there's no going back. As impressive as his shot-making was yesterday, his demeanor was even more extraordinary. He laughed and chatted with Couples, a friend, obviously at home in the daunting elements. He actually resembled Woods, almost casually nailing down another major from in front.

He jumped for joy when he won at Augusta two years ago, but yesterday, he just tipped his visor and hugged his kids, thanks for coming, ring up another one. He is used to this now.

"When I won in 2004, there was this great sense of relief that I had won this tournament I had dreamed about, one of the majors," Mickelson said. "Today, I just feel a great sense of accomplishment to have beaten some incredibly talented golfers."

Always an open psychological book, Mickelson sat patiently with reporters after his final round and entertained numerous questions about rising above 0-for-46 and finally becoming more clutch. One reporter asked if he was just more comfortable in his skin now.

"I'm certainly a lot cheerier," he said.

He preferred to stress a fundamental change in his game he engendered more than two years ago, just before he started winning majors. Known for years as a gambler willing to take almost any risk on a course, sometimes to his detriment, he decided to become more of a percentage player.

"I started to play differently, control my game more, control the flight of the ball," he said. "There were times when I was hurting myself."

He mentioned several occasions when he took chances on one of Augusta National's par-5 holes, which he usually slays, and lost key strokes, possibly costing him victories.

This year, he approached the par 5s much more conservatively, taking only what came naturally to him, and played the 16 holes (four per round) in a remarkable 13-under-par.

It can safely be said that won the tournament for him, as he was 6-over-par over the other 56 holes during the week.

"There's no doubt he's changed," said Couples, who finished tied for third. "He's a much better player than he was five years ago or whenever it was that he started winning these majors. He hits the ball much better. He gets it around the golf course."

And he has the confidence to win.

"I am just having the best time playing golf right now," Mickelson said. "I am having so much fun being able to compete for majors. To win a couple is an amazing feeling."

Many in golf had begun to believe he would never experience that feeling. Perhaps even he had started to wonder himself.

But watching him win so easily yesterday, on what amounted to a stroll with a friend, here's guessing a few more major titles are in his future. Maybe his near future.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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