Dont Take Your Eyes Off Phil


Tiger Woods is the player you have to watch this week at Augusta National where he will attempt to win his fifth Masters Tournament and third straight major championship. But Phil Mickelson will be the player you wont be able to take your eyes off of.
To be sure, Mickelson can be as unconventional and unorthodox as the previous sentence of this column'it ended with two prepositions. To be double sure, Mickelson is, after all, a lefty.
Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson works on his shorts game Tuesday. (WireImage)
And he will have two drivers in his bag when his attempted defense of this title begins Thursday morning. One of them will have a square shaped head. Similarly, he put two drivers into play last year at Augusta where his final-round 69 held off Tim Clark by two shots for Mickelsons second Masters triumph in three years.
When I need distance, I use the square one, Mickelson explained this week. And when I try to hit little low shots or work it around the trees on 10 or 13, Ill use the regular-shaped driver.
Mickelson has been drilling down on this years Masters ever since his arrival at the golf course last Thursday. By comparison, Woods didnt get to Augusta National until Sunday and that was the earliest ever for him. Typically at major championships, Mickelson shows up hours before his tee time and spends an inordinate amount of time on the putting green.
Most players will tell you that major championships are mental endurance contests; that they only have so much mental gas in their tanks for a 72-hole event. And they will shake their heads at the way Mickelson goes about his business at the big stages.
Ive been out here a little bit practicing, Mickelson allowed Tuesday. Which was like Hillary Clinton saying she had been doing a little campaigning.
This is the same Phil Mickelson who told us he was an idiot after ruining what was supposed to be a perfectly good and unspoiled walk up the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot last June. Several bad decisions later he wound up with double-bogey when a simple par would have won the championship.
He is not an idiot. He is a bright guy with a high golf intelligence quota. But he is flawed in at least two ways that Woods is not and both involve decision making: Mickelson is prone to being stubborn at the wrong times. And he is subject to being a victim of his own immense talent and vivid imagination.
In short, even though he can navigate his way around the worlds hardest golf courses in ways that would make a rear admiral proud, he doesnt always play the percentages.
And now it is time to find out if the collateral emotional fallout from Winged Foot has left permanent mental scars. Mickelson followed Winged Foot with indifferent golf the remainder of 2006. Notably uninspired was his play at the Open Championship, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
Ive had to overcome tough losses in the past, he maintains. None, however, of the magnitude of Winged Foot.
Now Mickelson is back at a place where, it appears, he was born to succeed. Mickelsons record in the last eight Masters shows eight straight top-10s. Yes, he won earlier this year at the AT&T National Pro-Am. But Mickelson wont have earned a full clean bill of health from Winged Foot until he plays well at Augusta.
That having been said, it will be surprising to me if Mickelson doesnt finish in the top 5 this week and not surprising at all if he wins his third Masters.
Unlike the opportunistic Nick Faldo who played in 23 Masters with only three top-10s, Mickelson is money in the bank when he gets down among the dogwoods and azaleas. Faldo won all three times he got close and thats all credit to him. Mickelson is always close.
Im not really thinking about the U.S. Open as much as Im trying to defend my Masters championship, Mickelson said bravely in his pre-tournament press conference.
By early Sunday evening we will know for sure whether this was just so much whistling past the golf graveyard or whether Mickelson really has put Winged Foot behind him. Meanwhile, we will be watching his every step.
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