Golf

Phil Mickelson now above the rest

GolfWeek Jim McCabe
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What's next on the horizon is the season's fourth and final major, the PGA Championship?

The return to Oak Hill CC in Rochester, N.Y., might bring to mind Shaun Micheel's stunning victory when the PGA stopped there in 2003, a win that capped off a surprising season in the biggest events.

Mike Weir had won the Masters in April and Ben Curtis the Open Championship in July, so Micheel's victory kept that shock value on the high end.

But that 2003 PGA Championship is significant for another reason. It was the last major championship in Phil Mickelson's life as the man considered to be the best player never to have won a major.

Remember? It was insufferable, but it was as sure as the sun coming up in the morning that the media would pound away whenever the Masters or the U.S. Open or the Open Championship or the PGA rolled around. It probably started when he was 27 or 28 and it continued into 1999 and 2000. And 2001. And 2002. And 2003.

In April 2003, the lefthander had finished third for the third consecutive year in the Masters, but his finishes in the U.S. Open (T-55) and Open Championship (T-59) had given more fuel to the critics who suggested he'd never succeed at the majors. At Oak Hill that August, Mickelson was 1 over par and tied for sixth, just four behind Micheel and so he paid a visit to the media center. It didn't take long for someone to ask Mickelson if he sensed that the crowd was behind him, that fans wanted to see him win that elusive first major.

"I think it's very flattering that the people have been as supportive as they have," Mickelson said. "I find that very flattering. It certainly is uplifting."

He faded that weekend — rounds of 72-75 left him in a share of 23rd — and so when he arrived at Augusta the following spring, nearly every story that mentioned Mickelson hung this out there for all to read: He was 0-for-46 in the majors. What was always impressive, though, is how Mickelson handled such constant criticism; he never got combative or defensive, which he could have, and more times than not he offered humor.

Like the pre-Masters interview in 2004 when Augusta National member Billy Morris introduced the lefthander by saying, "Phil, as most of you know, has finished in the top 10 at the Masters seven times in 11 appearances. He has finished no worse than seventh in the last five years. He's played in 11 Masters and has had a beautiful record here."

Without missing a beat, Mickelson interjected, "But no wins. No wins." There was good laughter.

Then, looking at Morris, who as custom demands was wearing his member's green jacket, Mickelson added: "I want what you have. I want one of those. Those are nice."

A few days later, Mickelson had one, too, his unforgettable birdie putt at the 72nd providing a one-stroke win over Ernie Els. His drought as a major-less superstar was over, but even with that, it's doubtful that people envisioned him being a five-time major winner. After all, he was nearing his 34th birthday.

Yet now that the Claret Jug is in his possession, that's exactly what Mickelson is and he deserves all the accolades that have come, and will continue to go, his way. He has won five majors in 38 attempts since 2004, which compares virtually dead-on with what Woods has done in that span (6 for 35).

Now, this isn't to suggest that Mickelson's career in the majors equals Woods'. It doesn't. That stretch of major performances from the PGA of 1999 to the U.S. Open of 2002 when Woods won seven of 11 starts, or that burst from the 2005 Masters to the 2008 U.S. Open when he won 6 of 14? Dominating stuff.

Think what you want of Mickelson, but during all those years of scrutiny he always remained upbeat. The fact that he's won five majors since turning 33 (Woods has won zero, Ernie Els one since reaching that age) has to be an inspiration to guys such as Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald, and a few others who are in that age vicinity and will trying to figure out these biggest tournaments.

Tagged: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Shaun Micheel

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