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Ultimate underdog Long topples Mickelson in the desert

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Flipping open his yardage book, looking for the scorecard to record his opponent’s final 3, Phil Mickelson could muster only one word.


He’d been toppled by the ultimate underdog.

Adam Long, a 31-year-old rookie who hadn’t won in any of golf’s minor leagues, chipped in twice on the back nine and made a macho birdie on the 72nd hole to capture the Desert Classic. In just his sixth PGA Tour start, Long went 63-65 on the weekend to post 26-under 262 and stun Mickelson, denying him a 44th career title.

Walking off the green, with his arm slung around his wife, Emily, Long perhaps summed it up best: “Holy crap.”

Indeed, it looked improbable all the way until the end.

Long sat in third place to start the day, three shots back, but his main goal was just to finish in the top 10 – he was on the alternate list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. “I wasn’t freaking out by any means,” he said, “but I just kept telling myself: I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m in the mix, I’ve got a chance at a top-10, and I’m just trying to have a blast. How often are you going to get to play with Phil on Sunday?”

For Mickelson’s sake, hopefully not much more – he might have nightmares after this final round.

Full-field tee times from the Desert Classic

Desert Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Long needed chip-ins on Nos. 12 and 15 just to keep pace with Mickelson and Adam Hadwin, and then on the 18th tee, he bailed out into the right rough and drew an awkward lie, on a severe side slope with 175 yards to the pin and water fronting the green. He lost his balance on the follow-through, but his approach was right on line – 15 feet short of the cup, closer than both of his playing competitors.

Looking over his read, with no real past experience to draw on, Long felt strangely confident. “It was one of those putts that you just stand over and you know that you’re going to make,” he said.

Know that you’re going to make?

Nothing was guaranteed for this steady climber.

He was ranked 417th in the world. He hadn’t won in Latin America or Canada, or even on the Tour; in fact, after turning pro in 2010, following a solid-but-unspectacular career at Duke, his lone win since came at the 2011 Woodcreek Open – on the Hooters Tour. His only made cut in the past five months was a tie for 63rd, earning him just $13,568 and leaving him with a bleak short-term playing schedule. The Tour doesn’t market players who enjoy slow, steady progressions, and yet here was Long, on the final green with a Hall of Famer and a proven Tour winner, ready for his breakthrough moment.

“It seemed like it came out of nowhere,” Long said, “but my game has been trending in the right direction for a couple of years now.”

And so, sure, maybe he felt calm over the clinching putt, like he knew he was going to knock it in. But to actually do it, to beat Mickelson and become a Tour winner and head to Augusta in a few months? The sheer weight of it all seemed to hit Long in his post-round interview.

“I’m in disbelief right now,” he said. “I don’t really know what happened.”

Oh, Mickelson had a pretty good idea – his putter let him down, all day. He yanked a 4-footer for par on the opening hole and never recovered. After a red-hot flatstick lifted him to the second-best 54-hole total of his Tour career, Mickelson took 33 putts and made only two birdies over his final 11 holes, falling one shot shy.

“I had a terrible putting day,” he said, “one of the worst I can recall in a while.”

And so continued a troubling trend for Mickelson. At his age, 48, chances to win are precious, and he’s now squandered four consecutive 54-hole leads on Tour. It will only get more difficult moving forward, as he busts through fresh scar tissue and tries to hold off a new wave of talent, like Long, whom Mickelson likely never had heard of before Sunday.

“I was just in the background, doing my thing,” Long said.

And now he’s front and center, a Tour winner, a millionaire, and the most unlikely champion of the new season.

Phil was right.