For golf’s perennial marquee, the start of 2010 was a study in contrasts. For Tiger Woods, shaken by tales of infidelity and an uncertain competitive future, the New Year was an enigma. For Phil Mickelson, fresh from what may have been the best fall of his career, the possibilities were endless.
Mickelson closed 2009 with three consecutive “Ws” at the Tour Championship, where he outdueled Woods down the stretch, the Presidents Cup, where he continued to expand his role as American mentor, and the WGC-HSBC Champions, were he started the final round in China with a two-stroke lead over Woods and finished five clear.
At no time was that divergent existence so acute than at Torrey Pines, where Lefty began his 2010 campaign with a wave of his hand and a 20-minute “clearing of the air,” addressing everything from his schedule to non-conforming-but-legal grooves to Woods, of all people.
His San Diego season-opener was marred by a very public and very messy row with Scott McCarron over Mickelson’s use of grandfathered Ping wedges. McCarron suggested Lefty’s use of the old Ping wedges was akin to “cheating.”
Shortly afterward when the Tour closed the loophole for the grandfathered wedges Mickelson was vindicated, yet as the Tour made the turn for Augusta National and the year’s first major Lefty looked anything but vintage.
In seven events leading to the Masters he had just a single top-10 finish (T-8 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am). He opened with 67 at Augusta National, roared within one shot of the lead on Saturday with back-to-back eagles at Nos. 13 and 14 and secured his second green jacket with one of the greatest shots at an event that enjoys an embarrassment of heroic history.
From the pine needles right of the 13th fairway Mickelson threaded a 6-iron from 207 yards, between two trees and over a creek to 4 feet for a two-putt birdie.
“I tried to talk him out of it, he said, ‘No.’ I went at him again, he said, ‘Definitely no,’” Mickelson’s caddie Jim Mackay laughed. “That’s Phil, he simplifies things. Give me the club and get out of the way.”
Waiting for Mickelson behind the storied scoring hut was his wife, Amy, noticeably absent from Tour for months while she battled breast cancer. The Sunday snapshot of the two emerging from Butler Cabin was a much-anticipated boost for a game battered by scandal and a secluded headliner.
The celebration, however, was short lived.
Mickelson finished a distant runner-up to Rory McIlroy at Quail Hollow and was derailed by weekend rounds of 73 at Pebble Beach. It was three months before his next top-10 finish (T-8 at the BMW Championship).
But the results were the “what.” On Aug. 10 the golf world learned the “why.”
On the eve of the PGA Championship Mickelson revealed that he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a rare condition that forced him to Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic for treatment. Although Mickelson refused to use the condition as an excuse for his poor play, sources within his camp have indicated it was worse than he let onto and his play to close the season certainly backed that up.
For the first time since 2003 Mickelson failed to win multiple Tour events and his play at October’s Ryder Cup (1-3-0) looked more like the old Phil than the new team leader who had emerged in recent matches.
He also stunned observers at the PGA with news he had become a vegetarian. “I know, this is crazy. I know,” he said at the time.
But as Mickelson prepared for an extended offseason – he plans to begin his 2011 season the third week of January at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Championship – his largely pedestrian play drifted into the foreground of his emotional Masters victory and improving health for himself and his family.
“The last 16 months has been an interesting 16 months. As a family we've been through a lot. And the Masters kind of made the year for me,” Mickelson said.
“It meant a lot to us emotionally, it meant a lot to me personally. And I look back at the year, and it really comes down to that one event. For me the year was kind of salvaged by that Masters win. That's how much that tournament means to me.”
Mickelson was also encouraged by his improved putting, the byproduct of his ongoing work with Dave Stockton Sr., although his putting average (45th on Tour, 1.762) was the highest it’s been since 1998 (80th, 1.782).
“I feel like this year has been the first year in a while, in a few years, that I've had some good direction on the greens. And it's progressively gotten better,” Mickelson said. “It’s been a slower progression into consistency on the greens, and after a year of spending time with him, I feel like it's continuing to improve.”
The man who began 2010 riding a wave of confidence born from stellar play will start 2011 with a different kind enthusiasm, the kind that comes from peace of mind and improving health.
“We're in a much better place, and I'm excited about that,” Mickelson said.