- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2001

Phil Mickelson's presence at this week's 34th Kemper Open is something of an enigma.
Quite simply, the event needs the world's No. 2 player far more than he needs a week of work at TPC at Avenel.
These days, Lefty's professional life primarily revolves around preparing himself for golf's next major and another potential tussle with Tiger Woods at Southern Hills in next month's U.S. Open. Because until Mickelson sheds the major monkey on his back, everything else about his otherwise sparkling resume qualifies as comparably minor.
So like Woods and David Duval and a select group of others for which moneymaking is no longer an issue, one would assume that each of Mickelson's decisions would be made with an eye toward the majors. His presence this week is proof that's not exclusively the case.
Mickelson, of course, dominated another golf course for 54 holes last week, taking a share of the lead into Sunday's play at Colonial. But repeating a disturbing recent trend, Mickelson played lip music on a pair of 3-footers on the back and wound up finishing second to Sergio Garcia.
His disappointing finish at Colonial marked the third time this season that Mickelson has taken the lead or a share of the lead into the final round only to watch somebody else haul away the hardware. Throw in his final-round fade at the Masters, which he entered trailing Woods by just one stroke, and nobody has contended so often this season with so little to show for it.
Consider this worrisome statistic: In the seven tournaments in which Mickelson has posted a top-10 finish this season, his scoring average through the first three rounds is 67.7; his final-round stroke average is 70.3. Even his lone win of the season came in forgettable fashion, when he won a three-way playoff at the Buick Invitational with a double-bogey.
"One of the things I've been working toward and trying to do for years now is to play consistently at a high level where I get myself in contention week in and week out," Mickelson said yesterday. "It seems that I've been able to accomplish that more so this year. The downside is that while I've been getting myself in those positions, I haven't been taking advantage of it … I think that I haven't been quite as focused and quite as intense on Sunday. And I've been a little lackadaisical in closing."
Perhaps some of Mickelson's closing issues can be traced to fatigue. Last week he had his vintage slump-shouldered, beaten look long before the 30-inch miss on No. 17 that sealed his defeat. And after three straight starts, two in which he contended until the very last swing, Mickelson had every reason to look a little burned around the competitive edges down the stretch at Colonial.
With that thought in mind, and Jack Nicklaus' prestigious Memorial Tournament on next week's schedule, few folks would have been surprised if Mickelson had taken a pass on this week's proceedings at Avenel. After all, when was the last time Woods played four straight PGA Tour events? Don't bother looking it hasn't happened since his rookie season (1996). Why? Because the stress of competing at the level at which Woods and Mickelson achieve, a level that usually involves leader boards and crucial Sunday 3-footers, takes a tremendous physical and emotional toll on the body.
But backing out of events isn't part of the Mickelson M.O. So yesterday he was out at Avenel for the first time since 1997, trying to take a refresher course on the 7,005-yard, par-71 layout while also trying to entertain four chops in the pre-tournament pro-am. And as usual, Lefty wasn't simply going through the motions. He smiled his way around while carrying his pro-am group to a 56, the third-best score of the day. He then signed autographs for fans and accepted hackneyed condolences and best wishes from the gallery before sitting down with the media and dismissing any notion that he ever considered withdrawing.
"I just felt like after last week, not playing as well as I wanted to on Sunday, I really wanted another shot at it quick," said Mickelson, who now will not play the Memorial. "So there was never a thought of not playing here. In fact, I couldn't wait to get here that much quicker. The difficulty I'll have right now is patience, because I want Sunday to be here and it's Thursday."
That's the gracious response to why Mickelson reported yesterday. But perhaps the more realistic reason is that he was aware that he was the only player in the 156-man field ranked in the top 10 in the world rankings, and he didn't want to let the tournament down.
"I have some relationships here in Washington, D.C., that I want to nurture a little bit," said Mickelson, offering perhaps a more candid take. "I had not played here in a few years, and I wanted to get back. I enjoy the golf course, and I think it's a well-run event."
Mickelson is a far too humble sort to simply say, 'You're welcome.' But the Kemper definitely owes him a debt of gratitude because playing this week certainly isn't the best thing he could be doing to prepare himself for the U.S. Open. Avenel, with its wide fairways and bentgrass/poa annua greens, couldn't be any more different than Southern Hills, a tight, twisty track rife with Bermuda grass meaning this week is by no means an Open tuneup.
And Mickelson readily admits that what he really needs is an extended practice session on his short putting, a task he could accomplish much more easily back home in the privacy of a few long afternoons in Arizona.
"It's a physical thing," said Mickelson of his recent problem with short putts. "I have not practiced my short putts in two years. It's my own fault. I've been working on other areas of my game. I used to have a drill where I would hit 100 3-footers in a row, and I wouldn't stop until I did, and I didn't miss any 3-footers for months. And I have not been doing that, and consequently I've been missing short putts. It's just a slightly different stroke [than I use for longer putts.] It needs to be shorter and slightly more aggressive, because speed is not quite as critical."
But Mickelson won't really get too much practice time on those short putts this week, not with all of his obligations as the Kemper's marquee player. And he won't get much rest or any meaningful Open prep. Perhaps he will work himself into contention, however, and get the chance to exorcise some of his closing demons late Sunday.
"I think that it would help my confidence quite a bit if I were able to break through and win a tournament, close one out on Sunday, heading into the Open," he said.
Even if Mickelson were to hoist the Kemper crystal Sunday, there are some folks out there who still would say, "So what? Who did he beat? Let's see what happens at the Open, when Tiger is in the field."
Those people would do well to remember that Mickelson like Woods and the rest of the absent top 10 doesn't need to be at Avenel, sprucing up an otherwise drab field and honoring a commitment nobody would have blamed him for breaking.

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