- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

The Capital Open crystal is due for a little superstar sparkle.

Phil Mickelson is due to collect his first victory of 2003.

Put them together, and you have a match made in heaven, a marriage all but 155 folks on the property would love to see.

“It hasn’t been the year that I would have wanted so far, but I feel like I’m starting to play a little bit better,” Mickelson said yesterday. “Given that I’ve played well on this golf course in the past, I’m hoping to gain a little momentum here heading into next week.”

Next week, of course, the world’s best golfers will assemble at Olympia Fields outside Chicago for the 103rd U.S. Open. And, of course, the major-less Mickelson would trade about a dozen Capital Open crowns for one success in the Grand Slams. But given the Capital Open’s incomparable run of fairly forgettable recent champions, perhaps the hometown event deserves a Mickelson.

Since 1988, only two top-20 players have won the event — Lee Janzen in 1995 and Justin Leonard in 1997. And the tournament’s last three champions (Tom Scherrer, Frank Lickliter and Bob Estes) struggle to draw any kind of a crowd. But perhaps the event’s obsession with rank-and-file winners is behind it. Perhaps with the new sponsor, the tournament can start a new tradition.

The stars would seem to be aligned to produce a star. After all, in 1995 and 1997, which yielded the two highest-profile winners since the Capital Open relocated from Congressional Country Club, the tournament also fell the week before the U.S. Open. That bit of advantageous scheduling has yielded one of the strongest fields in recent history. Three of the top-10 players in the world are on hand — No.3 Davis Love, No.6 Mickelson and No.7 Padraig Harrington. The names are present. In Mickelson’s case, the game might not be.

It’s not as if Lefty is suffering through a miserable season. The 32-year-old Mickelson does have five top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Those are unsatisfactory results only by his lofty standards. When you have Mickelson’s combination of talent and experience, the odd victory is expected, even if not on a major Sunday.

The cause for Mickelson’s victory drought, which dates back to last June (Greater Hartford Open), is simple. He isn’t finding many fairways.

“I haven’t driven the ball as well as I need to,” Mickelson said. “Distance isn’t the issue, I’ve just struggled a little bit with my control.”

That’s a serious understatement. Mickelson ranks a woeful 180th on Tour in driving accuracy, finding the fairway 50.7 percent of the time. How bad is that? Only three players rank below him in the category. And one of those is David Duval, who hasn’t seen the short grass since he left Lytham and St. Annes at the 2001 British Open.

Last year, Mickelson hit fairways at a 66.3 percent clip. Some simple math reveals that’s 2.25 more per round (or nine more per tournament) than he’s hitting this year. If you figure every other miss costs Mickelson a stroke, that’s more than four strokes per event he’s giving up. That could easily be the reason his two top-5s this season haven’t been victories.

But Lefty, who has been accused of becoming completely smitten with length while sacrificing consistency, could have a secret weapon this week. Mickelson took a reconnaissance trip to Olympia Fields on Tuesday. He came away focused on a slightly different teeball than is his Tour standard.

“It’s a cut shot,” said Mickelson. “The last five or six years at the U.S. Open I’ve developed a pretty good scoring average and a lot of it has been due to hitting a controlled cut off the tee. Although I’ve taken a lot of distance off of it, I’ve found I’ve been able to keep it in play more. I plan on doing that a lot this week.”

If Lefty’s less aggressive tack solves his accuracy conundrum, watch out. He says the cut costs him between 15 and 20 yards in distance. That might sound like a substantial chunk of real estate, but it’s nowhere close to fatal for a player who currently ranks 4th on Tour in driving distance (304.4 yards). Once in the short stuff, few players in the world are more dangerous. Mickelson always leads the Tour in birdies per round. And his record at Avenel is extremely solid, revealing a third-place finish in his last start (2001) and two other top-15s in four total trips.

As for concerns that his mind will be too focused on next week’s test for a serious run this week, Mickelson isn’t worried.

“Honestly, I start thinking about the next major the moment the major before it is over,” chuckled Mickelson. “But once you get in the middle of a tournament, it’s pretty easy to stay in the moment. … When I’m on the course this week, my mind will definitely be on Avenel, because this golf course is too challenging for it not to be, particularly as long and wet as it’s playing. I think you’re going to be surprised at how high the scores are going to be, relative to recent years.”

And hopefully, we’ll be surprised at how memorable the winner is, relative to recent years.

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