- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

DULUTH, Ga. Here we go again.

Phil Mickelson is back in the hunt at a major championship, and the world's golf fans aren't sure whether to cringe or crow.

In his seemingly endless quest to capture a first major victory, the 31-year-old lefty posted a second 66 at the PGA Championship yesterday, moving into striking position at 8-under, just one back of relatively unheralded co-leaders Shingo Katayama and David Toms.

"I hit a lot of good shots and made a lot of good decisions," said Mickelson, who used his brutish teeballs to reduce Atlanta Athletic Club's 7,312-yard, par-70 layout to an exercise in short-iron accuracy. "But I do feel as though there were some chances to go really low, and I had a few putts catch the lip that maybe left three or four strokes out there."

Mickelson left at least four strokes on the front nine alone, missing a 3-footer for par on No. 1, lipping out a birdie putt on No. 4, lipping out an eagle putt on No. 5 and then closing the nine with misses from inside 12 feet on Nos. 6, 8 and 9.

Mickelson could have easily taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck if he had made just half those six putts. And instead of being pleased after a round in which he hit 15 greens and set himself up perfectly for the weekend, the lost strokes left him mumbling about the fact that he was behind some abstract "target score" that he set for himself at the beginning of the week.

"It was my intention, and it still is, to try and separate myself from the field, give myself a comfort zone," said Mickelson, sounding like a man who thinks he needs a several-stroke cushion in order to survive the stressful Sunday stretch and emerge with his first major title.

In actuality, he seems to be doing just that when you consider the flimsy credentials of the three players clustered around him two clear of the field: Katayama, Toms and Bob Estes (8-under). Toms has won five Tour events but has never made a serious bid at a major. And Estes has just two victories against suspect fields in his Tour career, and hasn't threatened over the weekend at a major since 1995. As for Katayama, not even Mickelson knows anything substantial about the Japanese mystery man.

"I haven't seen him play," Mickelson said. "I just know that he wears some funky hats."

Not even Jesper Parnevik would dispute that observation. But the 28-year-old Katayama has spent the last year terrorizing the Japanese Tour, winning seven events and rising to No. 50 in the world rankings. During one seven-event stretch overlapping the end of last season and the beginning of this, Katayama won a Tigeresque five times. He's made just one bogey through 36 holes at AAC, an early hiccup during yesterday's splendid 64.

And off the course, Katayama has more charisma than the other three players in question combined.

Asked why he wears his strange signature hats, Katayama explained through his interpreter that he thinks they have a slimming effect on his face.

Asked why he has the strange habit of warming up with a left-handed club, Katayama replied that not only does it help with his balance, he enjoys listening to the snickers from the grandstands around the range turn to awe when he turns around to his natural right side.

Asked what he thought about the fact that he was not only leading the tournament but burying Tiger Woods (even), Katayama said, "I would like to take a picture of the leader board."

Asked what he knew about Mickelson, who had made considerable fun of his hat, Katayama evened the score when he deadpanned, "He's left-handed."

In all seriousness, however, nobody really expects Katayama to be a major factor in the weekend fray on the Highlands Course. With Woods barely surviving the cut at 1-over and seemingly out of the mix, the 83rd PGA Championship is shaping up as a potential dream shootout between Mickelson and one or both of the daunting tandem of David Duval and Ernie Els (both at 6-under).

But while Els has his two U.S. Open victories to fall back on and Duval is still feeding off the confidence that came with his mammoth breakthrough at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Mickelson faces another weekend of confronting his major demons.

"I certainly think that having been in this position a number of times, I know what to expect," said Mickelson, who has 13 top-10 finishes in the majors without a victory in his otherwise sparkling career. "Having not won one, there could be doubts that creep in, and that's something that I'm overcoming right now. By that, I mean not letting those thoughts creep in… . The one thing I know for sure is that my game is there right now."

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