- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Maybe Phil Mickelson has finally found a mean streak.
Last week at the Players Championship, Lefty traded his standard sheepish grin for a grimace and blasted the entire golf community for its continued criticism of his reckless approach to the game.
"The conservative way just [stinks]," said the 31-year-old Mickelson, obviously tired of defending his ultra-aggressive style. "I won't ever change. Not tomorrow, Sunday or at Augusta or the U.S. Open or any tournament."
Mickelson's comments came between a couple of vintage chapters in the Lefty tome of self-destruction. A week before Mickelson five-putted his way out of the Players Championship, he blew a mental gasket at Bay Hill. Trailing eventual champion Tiger Woods by one stroke on Sunday, Mickelson attempted to thread a low, cut 4-iron from a dicey lie through a gap in the trees to a water-guarded green. The only thing missing from the act was a blindfold and a black cape.
"I was on the green and didn't know what the hell he was doing," said Vijay Singh of the decision. "I don't know what goes on in his mind."
Predictably, Mickelson's swing wasn't the one in a thousand he must have envisioned, and the ball sliced into the drink, producing a contention-concluding bogey.
Mickelson explained that particularly dubious decision by saying he never attempts a shot which he doesn't think he can execute "at least 40 percent of the time." He said this with a straight face, as if those odds were completely reasonable for a man who routinely makes $100,000 decisions. Imagine your reaction if your financial consultant handled your portfolio using similar logic.
Then again, Mickelson's cavalier mindset is nothing new. For years, the world has watched Lefty toss away tournaments with that same rationale. His quest to capture a first major title has been defined by overly aggressive decisions and their disastrous results. He has always been the PGA Tour's answer to Pavlov's dog.
Last year's Grand Slams provided a microcosm of his entire career. At the Masters, he charged a few too many approach putts well past the hole and fell to Woods, lamenting his inability to focus for 72 holes.
His most memorable miscue at the U.S. Open was a full-swing lob wedge from the fringe to a pin perched on a ledge. A simple bump-and-run would have yielded at worst an 8-foot par putt. Instead, his hero-atempt with the lob wedge came up just short and rolled 40 feet back down to his feet. After finishing tied for 12th after a final-round 75 (worst among the top-30 finishers), Mickelson reached for his "aw shucks" routine and said he was tired of beating himself up at the majors.
At the PGA Championship, he officially usurped Greg Norman's role as the game's tragic hero, playing superior golf only to lose to David Toms and his 243-yard ace. He took the rest of the season off after the PGA, using the birth of his second daughter as an excuse for what was more likely an extended trip to poutsville.
It's that reaction to last season's disappointment that makes Mickelson's eruption at the Players all the more noteworthy. Last season, Lefty seemed like a man searching for answers, desperate to find the major formula. This season, he's not only comfortable with his gambler's mentality, he's vehemently married to his mania.
"If I try to just hit fairways with irons, hit the middle of greens, it's no fun," said Mickelson, who points to his performance at the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional (where he finished tied for 43rd) as proof that he can't contend using a conservative game plan. "I always felt like I was steering balls around and hoping for pars.
"I don't care if I ever win a major. … I've identified what makes me play my best, and it's playing aggressively. It makes me focus. If I don't play that way, I lose concentration. I've had a number of chances to win majors, and I wouldn't have had those chances had I played any other way."
Almost as remarkable as Mickelson's newfound resolve is the extraordinary passion he displayed in defending himself at the Players. Some have suggested that a dearth of competitive fire is almost as much to blame as recklessness for Mickelson's 14 top-10 finishes in the majors since 1993 without a victory.
While Woods has been the game's profanity-screaming, fist-pumping Elvis, parlaying his streak of competitive nastiness into six major titles, Mickelson has been golf's benign Pat Boone.
But Mickelson the boy scout vanished at the Players, replaced by an edgy incarnation willing to attack both his doubters and his Tour brethren.
"I've been criticized an awful lot, but I've won more tournaments than anybody playing the game right now other than Tiger. And I haven't seen anybody else step up to the plate and challenge Tiger the way I have," said Mickelson, citing the three tournaments in which he beat Woods head to head. "He's the best player in the game right now, but I'm not going to back down from him. I see these other guys wilt, and it's just unbelievable to me that they haven't been able to play their best golf when he's in contention."
Like the rest of his peers, Mickelson has never stared down Tiger on one of the four weekends when the whole world is watching. But two weeks from now at Augusta National, we'll get our first meaningful glimpse of the remade Mickelson, a player whom criticism might have finally galvanized into more than just a major talent.

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