- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. Few golfing honors have eluded the long reach of Phil Mickelson. He has won 18 PGA Tour events. He has played on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. During his college days, he was the U.S. Amateur champion. All this, and he's still only 30.
But there's a hole in Mickelson's resume, one he'd desperately like to fill. He'd give up a sizable chunk of his $14 million in career earnings, no doubt, for a green jacket or a claret jug. (Perhaps one's available on EBay.)
It wasn't supposed to be like this, he said yesterday during warmups for the Masters. "I certainly thought coming out of college having already won a [pro] tournament that I'd have won not just one major but more by now. That's why these next 10 years are very important for me. What I accomplish will ultimately decide how I'm looked upon as a player generations from now. If I can win some majors, I'll be looked upon differently than if I had just won a lot of events."
There you have it in a nutshell, folks: Golf's all-consuming for some players, at least Major Mindset. If you want to be thought of in historical terms, you simply have to win one of the biggies. And if you win enough of them, why, they might even name a bridge at Augusta National after you.
It's not that the Players Championship isn't a swell tournament or the Memorial or the Pebble Beach Pro-Am or any number of others. It's just that they aren't one of the Big Four. They aren't the Masters or the U.S. Open or the British or the PGA. And they never will be.
"The majors are the biggest tournaments in the world," Darren Clarke said. "And to win one would be fantastic; it's what we all aspire to. That's why we practice. That's why we work so hard. I'm sure if I were to win one, I'd want to win again and again and again."
Tiger Woods has won one again and again and again. And here's one reason why: Because in January three months in advance he's already beginning to practice the kind of shots he'll need to hit at Augusta (and only at Augusta).
"You have to make sure you come in with the right trajectory and the right spin to hit the slopes [of the greens]," he explained, "because if you don't you're going to get into some spots where it's going to be extremely difficult to make par."
Golfers spend their lifetimes trying to figure out how to peak at just the right moment e.g. the week of a major tournament. When he was younger, Mickelson thought it was a good idea to take some time off before a major and use it to cram for the exam. But he didn't get the results he was looking for. Four years ago was the worst; he didn't even crack the top 20 in one of the Big Four. So he changed his approach.
"I've found that playing competitively a week or a couple of weeks prior [to a major] seems to get me in a more competitive frame of mind," he said, "as opposed to taking a week off and then having to tee it up Thursday in a big tournament. And last year, even though I didn't break through and win, I felt I played consistently well in all four of them."
He did, indeed, finishing seventh in the Masters, 16th in the U.S. Open, 11th in the British and ninth in the PGA. And now he comes to Augusta as hopeful as he has ever been. With a victory at the Buick Invitational back in February and a second and third in two of his last three events, "I feel this week provides me with the best opportunity [to win a major] that I've had," he said.
Tiger, of course, seems to know something the other guys don't. How else do you explain his remarkable record in big tournaments at every level from the Junior Amateur (three in a row) to the U.S. Amateur (three in a row) to his career Grand Slam at the age of 24? That suggests more than just talent. That suggests an ability to turn it on and off like a spigot.
"To be honest with you," he said, "I think a lot of it is just a matter of feel and experience. I just play and practice and feel what I need to do. Some days I need to hit a whole bunch of drivers. Other days I need to work on my short game. Other days I just need to take a day off and think about my game. I've just come to an understanding of what it takes for me to accomplish that."
No one wants to be known as the Best Golfer Never to Win a Major. But until he clears that hurdle, Mickelson along with David Duval and Colin Montgomerie, who are also here this week will vie for the honor. The difference between winning a major tournament and any other tournament is just so huge. It's like the difference between winning the MVP award and being Player of the Week.
"Winning the Masters once is great," defending champ Vijay Singh said. "Doing it twice would be unbelievable."
Do you think he's that sentimental about his two victories in the Buick Classic? No way, Vijay.

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