Rocky Mountain Phil


Phil Mickelson and Denver have this thing going. The Denver area runs a PGA Tour tournament, and Phil shows up at it and excels.
Mickelson was in his first full year on the PGA Tour when he won The International for the first time in 1993. Then he repeated the victory in 1997. And in 1998 and 2000, he finished runner-up. Phil could almost retire on the money he has taken out of the Colorado coffers alone.
Mickelson was just 23 when he won his first International. One magazine headlined their story 'Bear Apparent,' with the reference to Mister Nicklaus. He was carting off a tournament trophy for the third time already en route to his total of 21 so far. The fact that he is just now in his prime at age 32 is of importance. Were it not for the emergence of one T Woods a few years back, he would undoubtedly have more.
Mickelson, you see, was the one who was constantly compared to Nicklaus when Phil was in his early 20s. Only Nicklaus at the time had won his third tournament at the age Mickelson did. Until Woods burst on the scene in late 1996, Mickelson was supposed to be the one who would challenge Jack's records. Of course Tiger has eclipsed everyone, including Nicklaus, in the race for trophies at a certain age. But his excellence has somewhat hidden the fact that Mickelson has secured more titles than practically anyone of his generation.
In '93, Mickelson made it quick work the final day when he birdied four of the first five holes. He eventually scored 40 points ' this tournament is scored on the Stableford system and you really don't know how you stack up to the under-par system ' and there never was much doubt in whose hands the trophy would wind up.
Afterwards, Mickelson said he was particularly proud of his course management ' and appreciative beyond belief to the comparisons with Nicklaus at similar ages.
'I take that as a compliment,' said Phil, 'but there's only one Jack Nicklaus.'
Mickelson would obliterate the field again in '97 when he tallied 49 points ' 21-under-par in normal parlance. He made two eagles, 21 birdies and just four bogeys the entire tournament. The runner-up, Stuart Appleby, was way back with just 41 points.
In '98, he was runner-up to Vijay Singh during a week when Singh was not to be headed. But in 2000 he finished second to Ernie Els during an event in which he came onrushing the last two days but just didn't have quite enough oomph to get over the hump. He eagled the par-5 17th on the final day Sunday, but that wasn't sufficient to squirm past Els, who had opened with what amounted a 65-63 on Thursday and Friday.
As much as he has done, he is haunted much more by what he hasn't done. The foremost of these is, after 10 years, and though is the second-ranked player on planet earth, he hasn't won a major. He is criticized for being too greedy, too aggressive, not a reliable enough putter, for just about everything except just being unlucky. The same reasons why he won twice at the International and finished runner-up two times, why he has won 21 times, why he has finished second or third in seven major events, is the same reason why he hasn't yet broken through after 10 years of trying. Mickelson is an aggressive player, and he doesn't see any reason to change a highly successful style.
'I thought that maybe to win a major, I needed to play a little bit more conservative style,' said Mickelson at The Players Championship this year. 'But as I have looked back on it, I don't care if I ever win a major. I am not going to play this game without the enjoyment, without the fun that I have right now.
'And I don't believe that is the case. I believe that if I continue to play the style of golf I have been playing and be patient, I will win my share of majors.'
There simply would not be 21 wins upon Phil's mantle, he believes, if he were to play a la Nicklaus ' conservative in style, waiting patiently for others to make mistakes.
'I just don't play my best when I play that way,' said Mickelson. 'I just don't play my best.
'I can't play the way Jack played. He actually told me how he used to prepare for majors and for tournaments. I don't prepare well that way. I tried that and it didn't work for me.
'I found the way I need to prepare for events to get my best performance that week, and I have found that for me to have my lowest scores, I need to fun playing the game. I need to be creative. That's my strength ' creativity.'
That was his strength at The International in '93, that was his strength in '97, and that was his strength in runner-up efforts in '98 and 2000. Mickelson and Denver get along just fine, thank you.