AUSTIN, Texas – On the eve of the final round last year at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, Daniel Berger gave a glimpse into the psyche of a champion.
With Phil Mickelson looming in second place, just three shots behind Berger, the second-year PGA Tour player was asked his thoughts on Lefty’s close proximity.
“I like to call Phil 'Philip.' He says only his wife calls him that. I can't call him that until I win on the PGA Tour,” smiled Berger, who would go on to win the 2016 St. Jude Classic. “But I still call him that anyway. I don't care. It is what it is.”
That evening your scribe ran across Mickelson and told him Berger’s “Philip” story: “That’s awesome,” Lefty beamed, “you have to have that out here.”
In Berger, Mickelson sees a kindred spirit, a younger iteration of the player who won on Tour before he even turned pro and thrives on the challenge almost as much as he does the competition.
That connection at least partially explained Mickelson’s smile on Thursday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he set out for his Day 2 match against Berger in some of the most demanding conditions on Tour this season with winds gusting to 35 mph through the Texas hill country.
Mickelson, fresh off a Day 1 victory over Si Woo Kim, was solid, mostly with his driver that’s becoming something of a pillar in his game, on his way to a 4-up advantage through eight holes.
From there, it became a very Mickelson-esque round with Berger playing the role of wayward contender.
Mickelson halved holes with a double bogey (No. 9), bogey (No. 12) and bogey (No, 13), and he won a hole with a par (No. 8). During that stretch Berger was 5 over par, and that didn’t include an approach shot at the 14th hole that was pulled badly into the Colorado River that ended the match.
For the second time this week, Mickelson hasn’t been pushed past the 16th hole. In fact, he hasn’t even seen the final three holes since last year’s Match Play, having skipped that stretch during his practice round.
“I'm having fun,” he said. “The greens are severely pitched, very fast and firm and that makes it very difficult. I find that the mixture of holes from birdie holes to tougher pars is fun.”
There’s also something to be said for this week’s format, which brings out the best in Mickelson’s competitive moxie and allows for the occasional foul ball that has always been a part of Lefty’s persona.
“The fact that you are not adding up every shot allows you to be not quite as focused on every shot,” he said.
That’s not to say Mickelson and the Match Play have always been a perfect match. In 12 starts at the event, including the first Match Play in 1999, he’s advanced past the third round just once, in ’04 when he lost in the quarterfinals, and there was a four-year window when he skipped the World Golf Championship beginning in ’12.
Although his passion for the Ryder and Presidents cups, which use the same format, is well documented, that hasn’t necessarily translated to the Match Play.
“It's a little different because you don't have that team environment. You don't have teammates and partners. You don't have the team room where everybody is talking smack and having fun,” Mickelson said. “Here I don't really talk too much because I don't want to cause a rift or cause any problems. So it's a totally different feel and environment than, say, the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup.”
But as Mickelson talked about his match against Berger his mannerisms, his emotions, had a similar energy to the biennial team matches.
After having something of a meltdown with his driving over the weekend at the WGC-Mexico Championship, he’s largely kept the ball in play, hitting 7 of 12 fairways on Day 1 and 6 of 11 on Thursday.
His miscues earlier this month in Mexico City, Mickelson said, were a “relapse,” but his work with swing coach Andrew Getson has produced a much more consistent game from the tee and restored much of Lefty’s confidence.
The Match Play is one of two WGCs that Mickelson hasn’t won, a statistical oddity considering his affinity for the format, and he can secure himself a trip to the round of 16 with a victory on Friday against J.B. Holmes or if Berger drops his match against Kim.
It would set up arguably his best chance to win the event in his career, which prompted one reporter to ask if it was fair to say he had a little extra motivation to win this week and fill a hole in his resume?
“You can, but this isn't the one,” he smiled in a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S. Open which he hasn’t won.
Fair enough, but that same drive that Mickelson admires in Berger will only further inspire him the deeper he plays into the weekend.