- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Just think: If Phil Mickelson’s “tryout” with the Toledo Mud Hens last summer had gone a little better, it’s possible none of this would be happening. No Masters green jacket for Lefty, no tie for the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, no idle chatter about — dare we say it? — the Grand Slam. All he needed was a few more yards on his fastball, a slightly sharper-breaking curve and the Mud Hens would have signed him to a long-term deal.

I’m tellin’ ya, the guy coulda been the next, uh, Jim Morris.

OK, so maybe Mickelson was just looking for a one-game gig, looking to live out a lifelong fantasy. But having Steve Avery, a Toledo pitcher, nearly take his head off with a line drive surely had to bring Phil to his senses. He is, after all, a golfer. That’s what he does. He just needed to apply himself a bit more seriously to that task … unless he was content to play bridesmaid to Tiger Woods for the rest of his days.

So Mickelson huddled with swing coach Rick Smith and short-game guru Dave Pelz over the winter, came up with a new master plan and, well, you’ve seen the results: a string of top 10s, his first major title and now this, a 68-66 start in the Open. Suddenly, a player who always seemed willing to get by on his talent has developed an unquenchable thirst for glory. Or as he puts it, “I really haven’t felt that sense of relief you’re talking about [after winning at Augusta]. What I have felt is a sense of excitement and anticipation. I can’t wait for the upcoming majors now because I feel like I’m onto something.”

In the old days, a Phil Mickelson round was like one of those close-your-eyes rides at King’s Dominion: birdies, eagles, bogeys, water splashing. But the New Lefty is a less adventurous sort, an approach that lends itself perfectly to the slim fairways and tall grass of the Open. At Shinnecock Hills, as at all U.S. Open venues, discretion is almost always the better part of valor. You make your par (if you’re fortunate enough) and move on, waiting for a Real Opportunity to present itself.

Mickelson’s unlikely transformation from Wild Bill Hickok to Job prompted one reporter to ask yesterday if his game has “become boring.” Phil smiled that big smile of his and admitted that, yes, maybe it has. “But the outcome is OK,” he added.

Indeed, it is. One bogey in two rounds at the Open is marvelous goffe, as the 16th-century Scots used to say. At the moment, only four players — Shigeki Maruyama (6 under), Jeff Maggert (5 under), Fred Funk and Retief Goosen (both 4 under) — are within two strokes of him, while Master Woods is a distant seven strokes back.

Another major championship here would raise an interesting question: Is Mickelson, late bloomer that he is, the next Ben Hogan? Before you shout me down with cries of “sacrilege!” allow me make my case. There are, after all, some interesting parallels between the two, beginning with the fact that Hogan was a natural lefty who taught himself to golf right-handed.

Beyond that, though, Ben didn’t win his first major, the 1946 PGA, until he was 34, barely older than Phil is now. Until then, he, like Mickelson, had endured several excruciating near misses (runner-up in the ‘42 and ‘46 Masters, third in the ‘41 U.S. Open, a total of six top fives in all). When he finally broke through, however, he went absolutely bonkers, capturing nine majors in seven years (not counting ‘49, which he missed after being injured in a car accident). As great as he was in his youth, in other words, his true prime was from the ages of 34 to 40 — which, as we all know, ain’t exactly the norm in golf.

Lefty has a long way to go, sure, but his career may be following a similar arc. His sudden steadiness — Hogan-like steadiness — is hard to miss these days. As for his self-confidence, it positively runneth over.

“In the past, I always felt confident,” he said. “I didn’t approach tournaments worrying about what might go wrong. I thought about what would go right [instead]. It just took me a little longer [than expected] for everything to go right [in a major].”

Just to show you how things are going for Mickelson, on the par-5 fifth Thursday he hit a wedge that, by all rights, should have bounded through the green, rolled down the swale and had him staring at a bogey or, at best, a par. Lo and behold, it “took a huge bounce, nailed the pin, ended up eight feet [away], and I made it for birdie,” he said. “It was a two-shot swing right there hitting that pin.”

Should Mickelson walk off with the championship tomorrow, he might look back fondly on that “tremendous break” he got on No.5. Or he might look back on the day he pitched batting practice to the Toledo Mud Hens, the day he was reminded — not that we’d ever let him forget — what his true calling is.

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