Crowds and Control


2005 PGA ChampionshipSPRINGFIELD, N.J. ' He nods his head more than a detached man on a bad date. He gives a mock tip of the cap more often than a doorman at The Plaza. His smile is more present than controversy around Terrell Owens.
He is Phil Mickelson. He is leading the 87th PGA Championship. And he is loving every minute of it.
Phil Mickelson
As Phil Mickelson went lower and lower with his scores on Friday, the crowd noise kept getting higher and higher.
Mickelsons performance is only half of the reason hes flashing that big, goofy grin up and down the fairways of Baltusrols Lower Course. From tee to green, green to tee, swing to swing, Mickelson is being bathed in applause and appreciation.
Phils got em. Hes got em right in his hip pocket. Fans cant get enough. They absolutely love this guy. They run in between shots to position themselves for his next strike, creating clouds of lingering dust in their wake. They high-five one another when he makes a birdie. And they repeatedly scream his name.
Man, do they scream his name.
Come on, Phil! they shout. Make birdie, Phil! they yell. Its your time, Phil! they implore. Phil! Phil! Phil! The name echoed through the oaks, and between the ears.
Mickelson is warmly received in every tournament in which he competes. But it feels a little more personal during a major championship. Particularly one that is held in the New York area.
Mickelson has been a fan favorite in this neck of the Union since nearly pulling off his first major triumph at Bethpage in 2002.
Of course, it didnt happen back then. But that was one of the reasons patrons were rooting him on ' it never happened for him.
He was Hard-luck Phil; Star-crossed Phil; Poor old Phil; and Major-less Phil.
That all changed when he finally won the 2004 Masters. He was no longer the lovable loser; he was a major champion.
All those loyal rooters who stuck by his side through thin and thin celebrated that victory as if it was their own. And in a way it was.
Mickelson connects with the gallery unlike any other player, save for perhaps John Daly. He and Daly are by far considered to be the most human athletes ' OK, lets not call those two athletes ' players in the game.
They make eye contact with their fans. They talk to their fans. They sign autographs for their fans. Put simply, they acknowledge their fans. And thats what a fan most wants ' a connection.
Fans also love a winner, particularly one who has lost for so long.
One of many knocks on Mickelson was that he was always overly aggressive. That he had no control. And that this wild, go-for-broke approach ' the same one that seemed to work pretty well for Arnold Palmer, mind you ' would never work for him. Not in a major. Not in a hundred majors.
They were right in a way; Phil did have to tailor his game to fit major demands, and he did have to devise a plan of attack directed specifically for these four elite events.
But he swears that this is not a new Phil, just a slightly adjusted version of the one weve always known. Hes not being more conservative, he says; if anything, hes just being more controlled, which he believes allows him to be more aggressive.
It makes sense in his mind.
By hitting a right-to-left fade ' a soft cut, as he calls it ' he is able to temper his distance off the tee by 20 to 25 yards. This allows him to hit more fairways, which allows him to target pins more often than if he was in the rough.
Hes using this swing on every tee shot at Baltusrol, even on the holes that are better suited for a left-handed draw. He last did his One Trick Pony routine at Augusta in 2004.
That worked out pretty well for him. And its doing the same yet again.
Mickelson is a major champion. But only one time over. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, he received votes from some of his peers as the games biggest underachiever ' this in relation to a guy who has won 26 PGA Tour events. That just goes to show the incredible level of talent this guy has, and what is expected of someone with such a gift.
Mickelson expects to win another major. Soon. Maybe this week. Long before he won the Masters, he told anyone who was willing to listen that he had a grand plan for winning not just one, but multiple major titles.
David Duval spent his professional career stalking a major kill. And when he bagged one, it was his drive that died. He never looked long term.
Mickelson did, and still is.
The key word this week is: control.
Mickelson has talked repeatedly about the need to control his ball off the tee. His instructor, Rick Smith, said after Fridays round, Hes got total control of what hes doing right now.
Smith said he would love to see a Pebble Beach situation, referring to Tiger Woods 15-stroke runaway victory in the 2000 U.S. Open.
Mickelson, who leads by four, isnt looking that far ahead. Hes focused entirely on the present.
When he made double bogey on the par-4 first, his 10th hole of the day, fresh off a birdie-eagle run to close his opening nine holes, Mickelson didnt panic. He didnt try to get back those two strokes on the very next hole ' in fact, he missed a 6-footer for birdie at No. 2.
Instead, he remained calm and trusted everything that he has been working on since the Open Championship, and he made three birdies to just one more bogey coming home.
He remained controlled.
And right now, Mickelson is not just in control of his game; hes in complete control of the tournament.
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