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Mickelson validated by WGC-Mexico win

By Rex HoggardMarch 5, 2018, 2:00 am

MEXICO CITY – When Phil Mickelson finally trades his PGA Tour card for an AARP card, which at this rate will likely stretch well into his golden years, PGA Tour victory No. 43 will be greater than the sum of its parts.

At first blush, the frenzied shootout on Sunday at the WGC-Mexico Championship was don’t-blink stuff. Lefty began the day two strokes off the lead, was one of six players to hold at least a share of the top spot and birdied Nos. 15 and 16 to force overtime with Justin Thomas, who just happens to be the game’s hottest player.

In typical Phil fashion, he didn’t make it easy.

He missed the fairway at the 11th hole, hit his next shot into a row of hedges and weaved a pitch between trees on his way to a bogey that dropped him two strokes off the pace with seven holes to play.

He caromed two tee shots off carts paths in a three-hole stretch, hit a tree and “a bunch of people” along the way – exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s most entertaining players.

Finally, facing another missed opportunity, he did something he’d been unable to do for over four years, holing key putts and avoiding the kind of mistakes that have defined a winless drought that stretched back to the 2013 Open Championship.

But when Mickelson finally settles into retirement, it won’t be his frenzied give and take with Thomas, who played his last 36 holes at Chapultepec Golf Club in 16 under par, or those clutch putts coming down the stretch that will define his 43rd celebration. It will be the validation that comes after more than four years of trial and (largely) error.

At 47 years old, Phil Mickelson has redefined himself. He’s no longer an aging legend clinging to misplaced confidence, or a player who has struggled with focus and poor swing mechanics. Instead, he’s emerged from the longest victory slump of his career like a competitive Benjamin Button.

“I believe it's going to continue to get better each week,” Mickelson reasoned following his victory over Thomas on the first playoff hole. “I don't think that this is the apex or the peak, I think I'm going to continue to get better, I think I'm working on the right things. I knew it was going to happen, but having validation means a lot.”

 Flanked by a World Golf Championship trophy it’s easy to have that kind of confidence, but know that throughout this process Mickelson never waivered.


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“It was always a matter of when, not if [he would win again],” said Mickelson’s brother, Tim, who replaced Jim “Bones” MacKay on Lefty’s bag last year. “I don’t think there was ever any doubt.”

He never allowed himself the indulgence of doubt, that wouldn’t be in Mickelson’s character, but that doesn’t mean Lefty was immune from the weight of his own expectations.

He failed to advance to the Tour Championship in three of the last four seasons and needed a captain’s pick for last year’s Presidents Cup to keep his team participation streak intact. Mickelson would have the occasional flashes of brilliance, like his three runner-up finishes in 2016, but he could never maintain any level of consistency.

“Over the last four-and-a-half years I've been extremely frustrated knowing that I've been able to play at this level and I haven't been doing it,” Mickelson conceded. “Knowing that I'm able to hit shots and I haven't been doing it, hitting some of the crazy shots that I've hit, that's led to a source of frustration.”

Although he’d regularly insist that he was close, there’s no substitute for results, which until the last few weeks hadn’t been there with any consistency.

But things started to change last month. He tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, second at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and set the table for his WGC walk-off with a tie for sixth two weeks ago at the Genesis Open.

As the week progressed in Mexico, those mental lapses and loose swings disappeared and he began playing a brand of golf that was more calculated. He made just a single bogey over 36 holes to earn a spot in Sunday’s final group, his first appearance in an anchor pairing since the 2016 Open Championship.

After that, it was all muscle and mental memory.

The nerves, the anticipation, the excitement that come with being in contention late on a Sunday all came back to him. He wasn’t perfect, but then Lefty never is. Despite hitting just 7 of 14 fairways, Mickelson two-putted from 32 feet at the 15th hole to inch to within a shot of the lead and rolled in a 19-footer for birdie at the next to move into a three-way tie with Thomas and Tyrrell Hatton.

“I love that nervous feeling that you get when you're in contention, I just haven't felt it that often,” he said. “I was certainly nervous heading into today's round, the pre-round warm-up, all that stuff. That's all part of it, though. That's what's exciting and that's what's so fun and that's what I've missed.”

The finish was rather anti-climactic, with Mickelson two-putting for par at the first extra hole after Thomas, who earned his spot in overtime after holing out from 121 yards for eagle at the 72nd hole, missed the green and failed to make par.

But then it won’t be the relative ease of victory that will be the lasting memory of Lefty’s long-awaited bounce back, either.

He may be one of the game’s most well-versed players, with an uncanny ability to speak at length about any subject, but he’s largely endured in private the last few years, reluctant to talk about his lack of focus and swing issues. Instead, he worked harder than he ever has on his swing, body and mind.

“I know there were other victories that will have a lot of meaning, but this one is very special,” said an emotional Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime manager. “This guy has done a lot of things to get ready for this moment and never really got acknowledged for all the hard work and the passion and the pain he’s had to endure.”

Lefty had gone 0-for-101 since winning the ’13 Open, and there was a growing thought that his best days were behind him and the game – now dominated by a parade of players half Mickelson’s age – had moved on. Lefty had other plans.

However, and whenever, Mickelson closes out his career, his 43rd Tour title will stand out because validation can be much more meaningful than a trophy.

Just before leaving Chapultepec, bound for a much different future, Mickelson was asked if he ever thought that his victory in ’13 at Muirfield would be his last: “No, I knew that that wasn't going to be my last one. And this isn't either.”

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.


1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.



4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.



7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”


Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  


Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.



The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Web.com Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


Updated Official World Golf Ranking


Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.