- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just when they were ready to put his face on the back of a milk carton, Long Lost Lefty (aka Phil Mickelson) goes and wins — by a bunch — the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. I’ve got just two questions for you, Phil:

1. Did you get a good look at the kidnappers?

2. Why didn’t you try to escape?

Mickelson wasn’t abducted, of course — except perhaps by his own emotions — but he did do a pretty good disappearing act after his infamous meltdown at the U.S. Open last June. One minute he was standing on the 18th tee, four swings from his third straight major title, and the next he was slipping on a fake beard and filing flight plans for Total Seclusion.

In the last half of the year, it was like Mickelson wasn’t even there, like he was the Ghost Golfer. He failed to contend in his five remaining events, didn’t even bother to play in the Tour Championship and stunk it up royally in the Ryder Cup. His double bogey on the final hole of the Open — a three-act tragedy featuring a hospitality tent, a tree and a bunker — had left a lingering wound, and his shaky start this year (T-45, T-51, cut) made you wonder whether it was ever going to heal.

It’s always interesting to see how athletes cope with crises. Mickelson’s response, for instance, was a far cry — if you’ll pardon the expression — from Arnold Palmer’s after he gave away a U.S. Open in 1966. Rather than recoil, as Lefty did, Arnie simply played on … and on.

And if anything, Palmer’s fold-up was more horrific than Mickelson’s. Not only did he fritter away a seven-shot lead on the back nine, he also got clobbered by Billy Casper in a playoff the next day. As one disbelieving columnist put it: “Not since the fourth game of the 1929 World Series has there been such a violent turn about in a major sports event.”

(For the uninitiated, that was the game the A’s rallied for 10 runs in the seventh to overcome an 8-0 Cubs lead.)

The similarities between the two disasters — Palmer’s and Mickelson’s — are striking. For one thing, both golfers were exactly 36 years old. For another, they were both on the verge of doing something historic. In Arnie’s case, it was breaking Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record of 276; in Lefty’s, it was becoming just the third player in the modern era to win three consecutive majors (and keeping alive his dream of a Grand Slam — or even a Tiger Woods-type Slam).

The difference is that when Palmer got knocked down, he picked himself right back up. In fact, he teed it up the very next week in the Western Open, tying for ninth. By the end of the year, he was back to being Arnie. He went to Brisbane in October and won the Australian Open. From there he flew to Tokyo and teamed with Jack Nicklaus to capture the World Cup. Then he returned to the states and won twice more — the Houston International and the PGA National Team Championship, again with Nicklaus. The memory of the U.S. Open might have still stung, but 1966 ended up being one of his best seasons ever financially.

How golf has changed. In those days, a player — even a star of Palmer’s magnitude — couldn’t have afforded a lengthy convalescence like Mickelson’s. It would have hurt the tour … and hurt his wallet, too. Every check, big or small, mattered in ‘66. Heck, the year before, Arnie earned just $57,771 despite a victory and three seconds.

But Lefty has no such concerns. His bottom line is fine, and the tour has never been healthier. Had Palmer tied for 51st in an event, as Mickelson did a couple of weeks ago in the Buick Invitational, there’s a good chance he would have finished out of the money. Phil merely pocketed his $12,542 and moved on to the next stop.

Over the weekend, though, he finally got his groove back. He pulled away Sunday to win by five shots, strong evidence that his U.S. Open hangover has gone into remission. Runner-up Kevin Sutherland wasn’t the least bit surprised. “Phil’s game hasn’t gone anywhere,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s a great player, and great players, they click and off they go.”

Lefty, in particular, has always had the ability to suddenly find the “on” switch. Indeed, it was the second time he has won a tournament a week after missing the cut. (Another year, he bracketed a victory in the Nelson with a T-66 and a T-71. Try that sometime.)

Anyway, normalcy has returned to the golf world. Tiger and Vijay Singh had already notched wins in 2007, and now Mickelson has one, too. The battle, as they say, has been joined. It sure would be nice, though, if Ernie Els awoke from his slumber and made it a foursome.

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