Our Phil of Stories Here Leads Back to Mickelson

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Of the 12 first-timers who will tee it up on Thursday at the 66th Masters Tournament, perhaps Jerry Kelly said it best when talking about this special place. 'It's bigger than the game itself', he said. 'Pretty cool.'
 
Pretty cool indeed. And pretty cool that this wonderful slice of golf heaven can withstand changes but still off the same appeal to players and patrons alike.
 
Not that anyone should condone such activity, but the very fact that a handful of folks have already been arrested for scalping tickets and stolen tournament badges is proof enough that this year is big. As in really BIG.
 
Tiger goes for his third green jacket, and by the way, if he does win he gets to choose who will put the new coat on him. Usually that duty is reserved for the defending champion, but considering that person is also Tiger Woods, he can either do it himself, or handpick someone else.
 
Frankly, there are so many stories to tell already. Things like reigning United States Amateur Champion Bubba Dickerson's decision not to spend a full week in the famed 'Crow's Nest', instead choosing to spend a few nights with his fiance. When non-amateur Jerry Kelly, who won this year's Sony Open in Hawaii, was asked about taking his place, he said, 'I don't think the other guys would like it too much. I snore pretty loud. They'd be throwing stuff at me.' Missed opportunity, I'd say!
 
On Wednesday Nick Price and Mark Calcavecchia fired 9-hole rounds of 22 to force a playoff at the Par-3 Contest. Price won it on the second playoff hole, stealing the top crystal in an event that saw a record five aces, including two in a row by Japan's Toshi Izawa. It was great.
 
But that aside, and with hopes that the raining weather doesn't become more than just a passing fad, the real buzz this week has been about two things really. Course changes for one, where the '19th hole' might include a lot of chat about the lengthened 18th hole. And Phil Mickelson for another.
 
He's been third here before but strives to be first. Let me make one thing clear. I'm no person to judge his style of play. I can barely hold on to a lead in a $5 nassau, let alone a two-shot lead in a PGA Tour event. What I can judge is his sincerity. And based on each and every one of the conversations I've had with him over the past eight years, I feel like he's doing everything he can to be accommodating. And that's not always easy when the tough gets going at major championships.
 
Phil has a handle on the game inside the ropes, and perhaps more importantly the game outside the ropes, where he knows that putting his words in print or his face in front of the cameras is not only good for the game, but good for his own career. Publicity is rarely a bad thing in sports.
 
But while Mickelson's 20 wins are truly awesome, unfortunately, he's being likened to athletes like Barry Bonds, Dan Marino or Charles Barkley. Each was or is as gifted as they come. They've given everything to their sport and given us every thrill possible - without winning the ultimate prize. Mickelson says he's not bitter about the recent backlash over his comments about 'doing it my way.' And he says he truly believes he will break through soon. Sundays are the key he says.
 
But as I see it, he has every right to harbor a few grudges. Why must we care so much about how a professional chooses to do his job? Especially when we are not his boss. If he says he can't sleep at night and won't until he gets a major, then it's worth noting. But until then, lets talk about him as the World's No. 2 player, who's doing his darndest to become No. 1.
 
Tour professionals are independent contractors. And with the exception perhaps of sponsors or high-paying manufacturers, they really need not play for anyone but themselves.
 
So I say do Phil Mickelson a favor this week. While he's not out trumpeting for our support, root for him if you like, but don't root against him. Appreciate him as the game's best-ever left-hander. And realize that he cares about the game just as much as he cares if he wins himself a major. If it doesn't work out, then so be it. But don't rip him for trying the best way he knows how.
 
I heard a good line the other day. 'Don't try to be better than someone else. Just be the best you can possibly be,' they said. Pretty good thought. And while most would agree that Mickelson would love to unseat Tiger Woods as the game's No. 1 ranked player, I think what Phil honestly wants more than anything right now is simply to reach the next level of his ultimate potential.
 
And that just happens to be winning a green jacket this week at Augusta National.