- Associated Press - Saturday, June 11, 2011

DUBLIN, OHIO (AP) - With everything riding on the final hole, Phil Mickelson found a gap in the trees and hooked a wedge that caught the left-to-right wind, hopped along a ridge on the green and rolled to 15 feet away from an impossible pin.

It was vintage Mickelson, taking on a high-risk shot when the stakes were high. All that remained was to make the birdie putt, and when it dropped into the center of the cup, well, you would have thought he had just won another major.

Except this was only a practice round at The Players Championship.

“I don’t remember fist-pumping on Tuesday very often,” Mickelson said with a grin, the details still vivid a month later. “My brother saw it on the Golf Channel and said, ‘What are you doing? This is Tuesday!’ But that was a massive game.”

That’s usually the case when Mickelson is involved.

Dustin Johnson was on the losing end of that match, standing off to the side of the green, cursing under his breath, knowing how it would end as Mickelson stood over the putt. Asked if he was more bitter about losing to a miracle birdie by Mickelson in a practice round or getting a two-shot penalty from the bunker on the 18th hole at Whistling Straits, it was hard to tell if Johnson was joking.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a tough one.”

But then, that’s the whole idea. Mickelson wants it to mean something. He wants losing to sting.

Mickelson has been hustling on the golf course since he was in college, if not longer, and his victims include Tiger Woods from long ago. It’s a way for Lefty to stay sharp, to face shots that are meaningful instead of going through the motions of an ordinary practice round.

Over the last few years, his practice rounds have served another purpose.

Mickelson started his career playing money games with Paul Azinger, the late Payne Stewart, Mark Calcavecchia and John Huston. Now he’s playing with Johnson, Steve Marino, Hunter Mahan, Jeff Overton, even rookies like Keegan Bradley and Brendan Steele.

“The idea is, I want guys playing match play and getting ready for Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups,” Mickelson said. “We play best ball and individual games, 18-hole matches. I haven’t said this to the guys, but that was my thinking when I started playing these matches. And if you’ll notice, most of them are young guys who one day are going to be representing the U.S.”

Mickelson paused to reach into a brown bag of french fries at a “Five Guys” restaurant, then he smiled.

“Every now and then,” he said, “I have some meaning to my madness.”

___

Story Continues →