Thursday, April 10, 2003

For once, Mickelson may meet expectations

By Tim Dahlberg
The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - No one expects much of Phil Mickelson in the Masters this week, which is probably just as well. For 42 major championships, those expectations have had a way of going astray at just the wrong moment- much like some of Mickelson's drives.

After taking a month off for the birth of his third child, he's finally getting a free pass in the "Best Player Never to Win a Major" subcategory, where he's been No. 1 for longer than he'd like to admit.

For once, Mickelson will be spared the ordeal of having to explain the unexplainable - how a player who was supposed to rival Tiger Woods can't win a major championship.

Instead, he can talk about warm, fuzzy kinds of things - such as the birth last month of his first son, Evan Samuel, and how he wants to be as good a father as he is a golfer.

"It's important to develop strategic time management," said Mickelson, describing how to juggle dirty diapers and putting practice in the curiously analytical way that only Mickelson can.

That he's a good family man, no one doubts. He was ready to leave the 1999 U.S. Open he nearly won to be with his wife while she gave birth, and he took a month off after the birth of his son.

Mickelson dotes on his two young daughters, and his wife, Amy, can almost always be seen following him around the course.

Where he stands among the best players in the world, though, remains a huge question that 21 career wins on the PGA Tour fail to answer.

Like it or not, greatness in golf is defined by how many majors you win. Jack Nicklaus won 18 in his career, and Tiger Woods has won eight in less than seven full years.

Mickelson is a stunning 0-for-42, and with each passing year the count gets more attention - and becomes more important.

"Nobody can be considered a great player unless you win a major," said Gary Player, who's won nine. "That's the ultimate, to see where the ingredients are in your system, from A to Z."

Mickelson knows the numbers better than anyone. Four times a year he deals not only with playing for a major championship but the inevitable questions about why he can't win one.

He would rather debate things such as black holes in the universe or the odds on Tampa Bay winning a second Super Bowl - questions that for Mickelson are far easier to answer.

This week, though, it's different, and not just because Mickelson has slipped from No. 2 to No. 4 in the world golf rankings. Because of the birth of his son, he has played only two rounds of competitive golf in five weeks - shooting a 79 in his last round. That has led most everyone outside his immediate family to write off his chances before he even tees off.

Maybe that's why he looked so relaxed and rested Tuesday - or as rested as you can be with a newborn baby and two toddlers running around.

"As far as result, I'm not going to worry about it," Mickelson said. "I feel like I'm playing OK. And I'll try as hard as I can over every shot over 72 holes, and I'm not really going to worry about the outcome or the result."

That's easy to say, especially for someone who studies his psychological approach to the sport as much as he does his putting stroke.

It's more likely, though, that he simply thinks too much.

A major magazine ran an article last week in which instructors found six different faults in Mickelson's long, loose swing, suggesting it breaks down at times under pressure because of poor mechanics.

It's true his driver and natural aggressiveness puts him in places sometimes where other players fear to tread, but Mickelson's failure in the majors runs deeper than that.

He's given away some major championships and played badly in others. Twice, he's been on the verge of winning, only to be beaten by putts on the 18th hole he could do nothing about.

Mickelson's resume is littered with wins in tournaments such as the Buick Invitational, the BellSouth Classic, the Colonial and the Greater Hartford Open. But there's no U.S. Open, no British Open, no PGA Championship and no Masters.

Those are the tournaments that define greatness far more than his $22 million in career earnings. Those are the tournaments Woods keeps winning.

Player knows a lot about winning major championships, but he hasn't been able to put his finger on why Mickelson can't win either.

"When that little thing changes in his mind - and I don't profess to know what it is - it wouldn't surprise me to see Mickelson win several majors," Player said. "But there's got to be a change, and I don't know where it is."

Neither, it seems, does Mickelson, though he keeps trying new things to figure it out. The latest is a workout program that includes, among other things, some self defense exercises.

On the golf course, Mickelson has always figured the best defense is a good offense.

To finally answer his critics, winning the Masters might be his best offense of all.

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