Originally created 06/12/04

After Augusta, Mickelson no longer has to answer The Question



It's time to put away the green jacket.

Phil Mickelson sure had a blast while it lasted. He got to chat on the phone with President Bush and Don King. Ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Yuk it up with Jay Leno and David Letterman.

"I was very flattered that they called, which is why I did all of those things," Mickelson said. "You just don't have that opportunity in life that often."

Just about everywhere he went, Lefty showed up wearing green. On someone else, that sense of fashion might have come off as arrogant, a bit over the top. On Mickelson, it was a perfect fit.

He was born to play this role.

Masters champion.

"I'll be able to be part of that event for the rest of my life," Mickelson said. "That gave me a really special feeling."

Now, it's back to work. The green jacket is on a hanger back home in San Diego. The first major is out of the way, but the career checklist still has plenty of holes.

With a clear sense of history, Mickelson has always envisioned himself going down as one of golf's greatest players. He doesn't want to be one major and done. He wants to leave a legacy that people will remember, that won't seem out of place when people are mentioning names such as Hogan and Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods.

Mickelson can get started at Shinnecock Hills, the wind-swept links that clings to the eastern edge of Long Island. He certainly goes into the U.S. Open with a different feeling than any of his other 47 majors.

"I think it's possible that after getting over the hurdle of winning the first, the second and third may be easier," Mickelson said. "I have a lot of confidence now, a lot of belief that I can break through and win the big tournaments."

The first one took far longer than anyone expected. Mickelson won 22 times on the PGA Tour before finally winning on one of the four biggest weekends. His quest was especially agonizing as he kept coming up just short in the majors.

Twice, he was the U.S. Open runner-up. There was a memorable duel at Pinehurst in 1999, Mickelson losing by a stroke when Payne Stewart sank a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole. Two years ago, when the tournament was held right down the road at Bethpage Black, Lefty was cheered on by raucous New York crowds but couldn't chase down Tiger Woods.

Woods, who has won eight majors, believes the way Mickelson won at Augusta was just as important as getting over the hurdle of the first major. He shot 31 on the back nine that Sunday, making an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole to beat Ernie Els by a stroke.

"The biggest thing for Phil in the future is he didn't have it handed to him," Woods said. "He actually went out and won it. Ernie didn't dog it coming in - he played great. And that's going to serve (Mickelson) well in the future."

He's certainly not resting on his laurels, having recently spent three days playing Shinnecock Hills. He's got good memories of the place, having made his first serious run at a major title when the Open was last held at the venerable course nine years ago.

Mickelson finished four shots behind '95 winner Corey Pavin, in a tie for fourth, despite playing the par-5 16th at 6 over for the week - including a double-bogey on Sunday that ended his hopes.

"I played well at Shinnecock, and I gave it away on one hole," Mickelson said. "I'll certainly be going back there looking for ways to save shots, much like I did at Augusta.

"If I can save half a shot or a shot a round, it makes the difference between second and third to possibly winning."

Mickelson feels his game now is much better suited to the majors. He's keeping the ball in play off the tee, though it means sacrificing distance. He's not taking so many wild chances, though it might disappoint fans who came to see "Phil the Thrill."

On a course such as Shinnecock Hills, where gusting wind and waist-high fescue make par a coveted score, that change in attitude should serve Mickelson well.

"I do feel the major championships could provide me a better opportunity to win tournaments," he said. "I'm able to drive the ball in play now, and the penalty for misses is so great in the four majors. In the past, driving the ball wayward and not really having as precise a distance control with my short irons has really put me at a disadvantage."

Don't get the idea that Mickelson underwent a drastic makeover to get that giant monkey off his back. He's still capable of gestures that endear him to most fans (or cause his cynics to grumble that it's all an act).

During the Colonial, Mickelson stopped at a lemonade stand set up by some kids outside the club. He bought a drink, handed over a $100 bill and told them to keep the change. They immediately closed down, probably feeling as though they were set for life.

A couple of the days before the Byron Nelson, Mickelson went out on the town with his three young children. He returned to the swanky Four Seasons hotel with his face painted, just like his kids.

"I don't feel any different as a person," Mickelson said. "I don't look at my record any different. I know that some people do, and that's fine, but it just doesn't feel any different."

After Augusta, Mickelson rode an adrenaline rush in his next two events. He finished one shot behind Vijay Singh at New Orleans, only two strokes out of a playoff at Charlotte.

Then, Lefty seemed to hit a wall. He missed the cut for the first time this year at the Byron Nelson. He thought about skipping the Colonial, but stayed in and could only manage a tie for 35th. He's getting in one final tuneup at the Buick Classic.

No matter the state of his game, at least Mickelson won't have to face that same ol' question when he gets to Shinnecock Hills: When are you going to win that first major?

That one's been answered.

He's got the green jacket to prove it.