- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — When the final pairing of the 87th PGA Championship reaches the first tee at Baltusrol today, the focus will fall on a set of virtual PGA Tour twins.

Rarely have two careers followed such similar arcs as those of Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III, the pair who carry the lead at 6 under into the finale.

Both bloomed early and were tagged with superstar status and Slam expectations. Both carried the ponderous mantle of “best player never to win a major” far longer than expected. And both finally shed the label at age 33, Love at the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot and Mickelson at last year’s Masters.

Both have spent their careers as top-10 regulars in world rankings, have been staples on U.S. match-play teams and have enjoyed widespread popularity as instantly recognizable faces and names. Both are certain Hall of Famers. Mickelson, 35, has 26 PGA Tour victories. Love, 41, has 18.

But if neither wins today at Baltusrol, their current career descriptions will include the same ugly word: underachieving.

Fifteen years ago, nobody would have pegged the uber-talented Love as a man destined to collect just one major title. And though Mickelson would seem to have many more major opportunities on the horizon, everybody always expected more than just one Slam Sunday bow from the brilliant left-hander who won his first PGA event (1991 Northern Telecom Open) as a 19-year-old amateur.

“Yeah, you obviously arrogantly think if you win one [major] that the rest of them are easy,” Love said yesterday after a third consecutive 68 on the 7,392-yard, par-70 layout squared him with Mickelson, who fell back with a 72. “The second one is just as hard. That’s why when you see a guy who has three or four or five of them, he’s looked upon a little bit differently than the rest of us. One major puts you in the club, but it’s just in the club. Four or five of them gives you superstar status.”

Among active players, only Tiger Woods and his 10 majors merit that description. But with Woods seemingly out of contention, six strokes and 19 players removed from the top of the leader board after a third-round 66, today’s Wanamaker Trophy seems ticketed for someone else.

For Love, who hasn’t won a regular tour event since his four-victory season of 2003, there seems an almost wistful longing for a second major. After a disappointing 2004, he watched Vijay Singh’s late-career renaissance and adopted a much more stringent exercise regimen. The nagging back pain that once plagued him is gone. He says he now feels stronger and more flexible than ever — so strong, in fact, he has found staying patient difficult during an erratic season.

A perfect example was Love’s play at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he so desperately wanted to play well in his native state that he lost his focus and his temper during an opening 27 holes that left him 11 over. Seemingly headed for the cut, he relaxed during his back nine Friday at Pinehurst, posted a 31 to make the cut and played the final 45 holes in 5 under to tie for sixth.

“I think physically I feel so good that I’m ready to just go out there and tear it up, and that hasn’t been happening this year,” Love said. “I’ve been pushing too hard, getting frustrated too easily, especially in the majors, where my first rounds have killed me. So I promised myself I wasn’t going to get frustrated this week, and I’ve been remarkably calm and had a lot of fun.”

Mickelson, who was nearly flawless and all smiles and handshakes while marching to 8 under through his opening 36, looked markedly less relaxed in front of his adoring New York-area faithful yesterday. His cut driver wasn’t finding the fairway. His opening nine included some poor approaches. And when he staggered to the turn 3 over for the day without a birdie, it seemed the 100-degree heat might be wilting him.

But Mickelson steadied himself on Baltusrol’s gentler back nine, posting eight solid pars and a lone birdie (No.12) to secure his spot in today’s final pairing.

“I thought after the start I had, for me to fight and still be in the lead is a huge boost because guys were out there making birdies and I was going the wrong way,” said Mickelson, who refused to answer a question concerning what a second major would mean to him. Mickelson said there was still too much work to be done. And with players like Singh (2-under 206) and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (207) among a pack of 10 players chasing the leaders at 3 under or better, it’s certainly somewhat shortsighted to reduce today’s tournament to a duel featuring only the Single-Slam duo.

But today’s finale might mark a huge career crossroads for both players. Tiger isn’t really in the mix, a past, present and likely a future rarity. Love might not have many more chances. And while Mickelson seems finally to have figured out the Slam formula, his record is littered with meltdowns.

Is this the day he takes another mammoth step toward rivaling Woods? Or will today provide yet another layer of painful Slam scar tissue?

“I don’t look at it as the biggest day of my career,” said Mickelson, who wanted nothing to do with the crossroads question. “It certainly is a big event, and I feel that I’m prepared to play well in the final round. But I prefer to look at it as an opportunity. I do think it’s going to be a fun day.”

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