Originally created 05/23/01

Lefty needs to get it right

Being called one of the best players in the world never to have won a major is now the nicest thing anyone can say about Phil Mickelson.

Any more, Lefty is known as the guy who can't get it right.

Especially on Sunday.

For the past eight years, Mickelson had been one of the best closers on the PGA Tour. He held at least a share of the 54-hole lead nine times dating to 1993 and won them all.

Just listen to him now.

"There seems to be a mental block for me on Sundays on the back side," Mickelson said, a problem as dire to a golfer as being unable to find the strike zone is to a relief pitcher.

The latest example came at the Colonial, where Mickelson was poised to become the first repeat champion since Ben Hogan. With birdies on four of his first seven holes, he shot out to a four-stroke lead and was on cruise control toward his 19th career PGA Tour victory.

Suddenly, inexplicably, fabulous Phil went into a funk.

First came a bogey from the bunker on No. 8, followed by a three-putt on No. 9 when his birdie attempt charged some 4 feet past the hole. He lost another shot by making par on the 608-yard 11th hole, a wasted chance considering Mickelson had a 6-iron for his second shot and required two wedges to even get on the putting surface.

It got worse.

Sergio Garcia made the turn in 29 and caught Mickelson for a share of the lead with a 20-footer on the 13th. It was Sunday competition at its finest. Mickelson took a deep breath and nearly blacked out.

For five straight holes starting on No. 13, Mickelson hit as many greens as he has won majors, and it's not hard to do that kind of math.

He nearly went into the bunker on the 13th. He went over the pin and the green on the 14th, leaving himself a 4-foot par putt that he couldn't convert. He found a bunker on the 15th with a wedge in his hand, flew the green at No. 16 with an 8-iron and caught a flyer out of the first cut on the 17th that landed against the grandstand.

What followed was a flop shot that only Mickelson and Tiger Woods would even dare try, then a 3-foot par putt only Mickelson seems capable of missing.

"Those are very short putts on perfect greens, and they're just not difficult to make," he said of the putts on Nos. 9, 14 and 17.

It was the third time this year he has failed to hold a 54-hole lead, and the fourth time he has squandered a chance to win on the final day. And it comes as no surprise that Mickelson ranks 57th in final-round scoring average, a 70.82 that is nearly two strokes higher than the average for his first three rounds combined.

At Pebble Beach, he needed a birdie on the par-5 18th to force a playoff. Instead of hitting 3-wood to the front of the green and relying on his short game, Mickelson hit driver off the deck from 257 yards, a huge risk with the wind blowing out toward that big, blue water hazard down the left side.

Phil, meet the Pacific.

He was one stroke behind Woods and primed to make the Masters his first major until he missed a 2-foot par putt on No. 6 that dropped him out of the lead, and hit his drive into the trees on No. 11 that left him in an unenviable spot - trying to catch Woods.

In New Orleans, Mickelson let a three-stroke lead get away by playing the first five holes of the final round in 4-over par, then took bogey down the stretch with a drive into the water.

"I've really struggled the last four or five times I've had a shot at it," he said. "So, it's going to be a while, until I win again, before I get over that mental hurdle."

Give Mickelson credit for not making excuses. Just don't give up on him yet.

This is the same guy who battled Woods from start to finish in the final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake. Mickelson avoided crucial mistakes, closed with a 66 and ended Woods' four-year PGA Tour streak of converting a 54-hole leads into wins.

A year ago in San Diego, Mickelson answered Woods' stirring comeback with consecutive birdies to end Woods' PGA Tour winning streak at six.

Mickelson remains the No. 2 player in the world, and rightfully so. He has finished in the top three in seven tournaments this year, including a bizarre victory in San Diego when he won in a playoff with a double bogey.

Still, the gap between Mickelson and Woods is even greater than the distance between Texas and Germany, where Woods put on a clinic on how to close out a victory.

Mickelson figures his best cure - maybe his only cure - is to win from out front. If not, he takes a fragile psyche to the U.S. Open, where only the strongest minds survive.


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