- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Lefty went back for Slam seconds at the 87th PGA Championship yesterday, cementing his status as one of golf’s major forces.

Courtesy of a clutch up-and-down birdie at Baltusrol’s par-5 finishing hole, Phil Mickelson clipped veteran Steve Elkington and hard-luck Dane Thomas Bjorn by a stroke in yesterday’s five-hole conclusion of the event’s storm-interrupted final round.

“It was an amazing week,” the 35-year-old Mickelson said after cleaning up a final-round 72 with three pars, a bogey (No.16) and the deciding birdie to finish at 4-under 276 for the week on Baltusrol’s 7,392-yard, par-70 Lower Course. “I’m just ecstatic that I was able to get it done.”

Just as it was Sunday, the caliber of the golf was pedestrian among the 12 players who returned to the property yesterday at 10a.m. with dreams of the Wanamaker Trophy.

All three principals, Mickelson, Elkington and Bjorn, played their remaining holes in level-par totals, no heroic accomplishment given the layout’s inviting finish of consecutive par 5s. And after a dropped shot at the 16th erased his overnight lead, Mickelson arrived at the reachable 18th knowing he needed just a routine par on the layout’s easiest hole to secure a place in a playoff.

Mickelson already had dodged a huge bullet when neither Elkington nor Bjorn birdied No.18. But given Mickelson’s spotty weekend play and his raft of suspect Slam finishes (excepting last year’s Masters breakthrough), nobody on the property was ready to pencil Lefty into the playoff, much less predict he would get a birdie on Baltusrol’s toothless finisher.

“I think you have a bit more of a chance with Mickelson in the pack,” Elkington said of watching Mickelson’s finish. “Because I’m not going to say his swing is flawless. It’s not, and he knows it. … He wasn’t cruising at all.”

But Mickelson carved the soft cut he had employed all week into the heart of the fairway just 247 yards short of the pin and 228 yards from the front edge of the green. Mickelson selected a cut 3-wood for the shot and walked several paces ahead in the fairway for a good-luck tap of the Nicklaus plaque, which immortalizes the site of the Golden Bear’s winning 1-iron in 1967.

He then made solid contact with the 3-wood, but the shot refused to take its anticipated bend to the left, leaving Mickelson in the short-right greenside rough some 40 feet from the flag. That seemed to portend a playoff, but the short-game magician demonstrated exactly the type of touch and prowess for which he has long been famous, flopping a perfectly judged L-wedge to within 30 inches of the cup.

“It was a chip shot that I have hit tens of thousands of times in my backyard,” said Mickelson, whose father used to not mow the grass behind the family home in San Diego so Mickelson could practice exactly such shots. “I hit it very confidently and aggressively, and the ball popped out perfectly.”

The scene over the next several minutes predictably was a combination of adulation from Mickelson’s adoring gallery and scripted sentimentality from golf’s first family. As Lefty holed the winning putt, wife Amy hugged swing coach Rick Smith, and the family nanny released the couple’s trio of golden-locked youngsters for a dash across the green to daddy. Only 2-year-old Evan diverted from the script, toddling around the green in genuinely unbridled excitement.

Mickelson proceeded to thank everyone in New Jersey for their assistance in securing his second major, though 90 minutes later he still wasn’t certain how to assess the victory in terms of his recent evolution into a major maven.

“I want to try to get better and better as my career goes on as opposed to thinking that I’ve hit some milestone by making it from zero to one major or one major to two majors,” said Mickelson, who vaulted to No.3 in the world with the victory, rekindling some Tiger rivalry talk and leaping over fellow Big Five members Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. “It’s not really about the results or how many trophies. It’s about trying to get better.”

Like it or not, Mickelson always will be judged on his results. And at his elite level, his legacy will be predicated on the number next to his name in the majors column. In that vein, yesterday’s victory was huge in that it catapulted Mickelson into a different category of players, a category not populated by one-week wonders like Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton.

“The guy deserves to win this championship because he led it from day one,” Bjorn said after another near-miss major. “He’s not a one-major guy. He’s a 10-major guy.”

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