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Masters

Showtime For Phil

It's four years after his last major win, and he's nearing 40. So the moment is now for Mickelson

Masters survey

Since 1999, Mickelson has finished out of the top 10 at Augusta in only one Masters.

April 2010

Phil Mickelson emerged from the clubhouse at Riviera Country Club and walked the short distance to the Northern Trust Open defending champion's parking spot. It was an area free of swarming fans, and it was odd seeing him absolved of making eye contact. Instead, he stared intently at his iPhone, clearly a man with a lot going on.

Inside his courtesy car, Mickelson called the operators of the private jet waiting for him on the tarmac of the nearby Santa Monica Airport to tell them he was en route. Then he pulled out another cell, known among the Mickelson family as the Bat Phone, and called his wife, Amy, whom he had kissed goodbye as the sun was coming up at their home in Rancho Santa Fe, about 100 miles south but at least three hours by car in Southern California freeway traffic. "How's my girl?" he gently intoned. "I'll see you in an hour and a half."

His day at Riviera had been full. After a morning practice session, Mickelson did a press conference, where he attempted to clarify his role at the center of the contentious early-season controversy over grooves. The week before, at Torrey Pines, Mickelson had used a pre-1990 Ping Eye 2 L wedge, grandfathered for play under an old lawsuit despite U-grooves that produce more spin than the grooves conforming to the USGA's new mandate. At first Mickelson gave the impression his goal was the extra spin, but after fellow player Scott McCarron called using the clubs "cheating," Mickelson emphasized that he was playing the club to highlight the "ridiculous" loophole. At Riviera, Mickelson, who claimed he had been slandered, announced that McCarron had apologized to him at a players' meeting the night before, and that he had accepted. Then, citing his respect for his fellow pros and his appreciation for the "Pink Out" they had conducted last year at Colonial in support of Amy's battle with breast cancer, he announced he would stop playing the club. "I do not want to have an advantage over anybody," he said, "whether it's perceived or actual."

mickelson

It seemed that loose ends had been tied, but Mickelson pushed on. He threatened to play the club again if the ruling bodies do not demonstrate a commitment to resolve the problem. He then blasted Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, who last summer ruled that high-spinning wedges developed by Callaway for Mickelson were nonconforming even though they adhered to the groove guidelines for 2010 (but were seen as circumventing the intent of the rule).

"I'm very upset with the way...one man essentially can approve or not approve a golf club based on his own personal decision regardless of what the rule says," Mickelson said. Just to make sure he left nothing in the bag, he concluded that the "lack of transparency" is "killing the sport."

"I don't typically discuss specific rulings in public," Rugge says. "That's a confidential matter between us and the submitter. I disagree with Phil and his interpretation. It certainly is not a one-man decision."

After Mickelson vented, he moved on to a five-hour pro-am round followed by another 15 minutes of signing autographs. By the time he got to his SUV, dusk was falling, and he was probably regretting having agreed to allow a reporter to accompany him on the short ride to the airport. But no sooner had he ended his call with Amy than he gestured at the tape recorder and said, "Go."

This is Phil Mickelson's public way: full schedule, full speed. By his calculation, it's a style that has allowed him to savor a fulfilling private life with his wife and three children: Amanda, 10; Sophia, 8; and Evan, who turns 7 in March. That contrast has never seemed so important, as both Amy and his mother, Mary, carry on their fights with breast cancer after being diagnosed seven weeks apart.

Whether it's accompanying one or both to Houston for checkups and treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center, flying back and forth from Riviera to be home each night for dinner, or simply being a sounding board for his wife, Mickelson hesitatingly acknowledges that it has been demanding. "It's hard to be the support system," he says, making sure to emphasize that he's not the one who is ill. "Seeing someone you love and care about so much go through such a difficult medical experience, such a difficult fight, is just very hard emotionally to watch.

"Long-term, it looks good for both," he says. "But even in the best-case scenario, it's not easy. We've got precautionary measures and medicines that are to prevent it from coming back for five to 10 years that are having pretty tough side effects. So that's been challenging for both."

FOCUS AMID DISTRACTIONS
What's curious is that since Amy's diagnosis last May, Mickelson has appeared to be more focused when he does play, and he has become a visibly improved player. Against all odds, 2010 is shaping up as Mickelson's time.

Though he is turning 40 in June, his 215 or so pounds are better distributed on his 6-foot-3 frame than they have been in years, his athletically cut shirts less snug on his leaner silhouette. His familiar long swing looks more compact and speedier, the leg action less "saggy" through impact (see the swing sequence on page 42). The drives are longer and straighter -- Mickelson led the field in driving distance at Riviera -- and most notably, big putts are going in. Lefty's latest iteration was on full display at the end of last year when he outplayed Tiger Woods in the final rounds to win the Tour Championship (his 37th PGA Tour victory) and the HSBC World Golf Championship in China, the latter being the first time Mickelson had won a tournament while paired with Woods in the final group.

"I've had some great head-to-head success [against Woods] in the last year or two," Mickelson says, "and I expect this year, with or without him, to be one of the best years of my career."

Mickelson has given off plenty of false-positives in his career, but this makeover looks to be founded in sustained work.

"When I first started with Phil, I thought he was lazy," says swing coach Butch Harmon, echoing a common perception. "His body was soft, and his swing was loose. But I was 100 percent wrong. In three years, the guy has always worked his butt off, and the more progress he's made, the harder he's worked. We're about 60 percent there. He's going to get better."

Adds Mickelson's trainer, Sean Cochran: "Phil has been very consistent with his workouts. He's realized that the quality of the swing he makes is directly related to the quality of his fitness."

Putting guru Dave Stockton, who isn't into grinding practice sessions as much as letting creativity reign, noticed another crucial element: rejuvenation. "As soon as I started telling him why he needed to go back to how he used to putt," says Stockton, "you could see him smile because it brought back things he did as a kid."

Bottom line, something has happened. Is it coincidence, or has the experience of dealing with major life issues given Mickelson a new strength and determination? Is he playing for something bigger than himself? One of the self-professed beneficiaries of his play -- his older sister, Tina -- believes she knows the answer. "More than ever, Phil's victories are a gift to our family," she says. "When he won the Tour Championship, that gave everyone a little glimmer of hope. It was fun and uplifting, and for one moment, life felt almost normal again. He doesn't talk about it, but I believe he knows that."

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