June 25, 2007

Feels like a good fit for Phil

Winning another Masters puts Mickelson in special company

HOOTIE TOOK AWAY THEIR PITCHING WEDGES, poor babies. That's my Masters lead, and I'm sticking to it.

He put an end to this silly business of guys hitting a 3-wood and a wedge to most of the long par 4s. He brought the best 72-hole scores back into the 280s, where they belong. Back where Hogan and Snead and Palmer and Nicklaus thought they'd left them for good, with the rare exception.

So Hootie's hereby declared the co-winner of the 2006 Masters along with Phil (Dances with Two Drivers) Mickelson, not that Phil is descended from the Oglalas, Northern Cheyenne or Blackfoot Sioux.

In case you've been busy enriching uranium in Tehran and don't know the Hootie in question, he's Hootie Johnson, Masters chairman, the man who ordered the latest lengthening, tightening and toughening up of the Augusta National.

Don't you have to give the Masters chairman credit for digging in against technology? Since there's no game ball in the sport yet—and golf, somewhat incredibly, is the only sport without one—Hootie used the only tools available. He called for lengthened tees, newly planted trees, a narrowing of certain driving areas.

There might be those who'll argue that such changes have created strategies Bobby Jones didn't envision when he helped design the layout. Well, Jones didn't originally envision a lot of things, frankly. First, he had to reverse the nines. And over the years the course has grown steadily longer, spawned more trees, added and rearranged bunkers, and the greens have gone from firm, crusty and yet speedy Bermuda and rye to the current bent that can be slicker than the Brylcreem in Mickelson's hair.

Most of this was done before Hootie's chairmanship, but then it became his time to keep the layout from being savaged by today's pros and the clubs and balls they've been given to destroy golf courses.

As the esteemed designer Tom Fazio helped out, the only thing Hootie didn't do was rename the holes they doctored. When the No. 1 tee was pushed back into Ike's front yard, turning it into a 455-yard par 4, the name could have been switched from Tea Olive to Tea and No Sympathy.

When the tee on No. 4 was pushed back into the third green, stretching the par 3 to 240 yards, it deserved to lose its old name of Flowering Crab Apple and become Flowering Abrams Tank.

When the tee on No. 7 was pushed back into tree-lined darkness, taking the pitching wedge away from everybody but John Daly and Godzilla, it turned the hole into a 450-yard demon that can no longer be known as Pampas. But it can still have a one-word name. Bazooka.

Finally, when the tee on No. 11, the start of Amen Corner, was pushed back into a forest nobody knew existed, turning the hole into a 505-yard par 4, it lost its gentle name of White Dogwood and became Dogwood This! Incidentally, Mickelson still played the killer 11th on Sunday with a driver, 7-iron—yeah, 505 yards, driver, 7-iron—so Hootie might want to wander around and see if there's any more room back there in the dark forest.

You might be wondering what all these changes accomplished for the good of golf and mankind. Two important things, basically.

In a week when there was hardly any wind, ever, and the greens were maintained at less than marble-floor speed—some putts actually stopped, unbelievably, short of the cups—Hootie held Mickelson's score to 281, and you have to go back 17 years to find a higher winning total, which would be Nick Faldo's 283 in 1989.

But here's my favorite thing. Even in the ideal conditions all week long, nobody—I mean nobody—shot two rounds in the 60s.

Know how long it had been since this happened? Nineteen years. Not since 1987, when the players were still getting acquainted with the lightning bent greens, installed for the '81 Masters, that were chairman Hord Hardin's legacy. This time, with all the technological advances and under ideal conditions, there were only 15 sub-70 rounds, one of which was Mickelson's closing 69.

To quote Phil in the aftermath: "I want to say one thing about the changes, real quick: I really like them."

Add big grin.

OK, a wreath on the head, a bouquet in the arms, a medal around the neck, and a salute for Hootie. What about Phil?

Mickelson's victory certainly moves him up on the immortal chart. He now has four majors—the U. S. Amateur in 1990, his first Masters in 2004, the PGA in 2005 at Baltusrol, and now a second Masters. Out of respect for Bobby Jones, as any stable, sensible and knowledgeable person knows, you count the Amateur when a guy starts winning majors as a pro. That's why Jack has 20, Tiger has 13, and so on. Otherwise, Bobby Jones has only seven majors, and doesn't that look idiotic?

Phil's four majors creep him past a stunning list of heroes who have only three. A few of them happen to be Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff, Tommy Armour, Hale Irwin, Billy Casper, Julius Boros, Ralph Guldahl, Denny Shute, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.

In fact, as long as I'm jacking around with lists, I can find only 12 Americans in the long history of majors who have collected more than four, a list topped by Nicklaus and bottomed by Byron Nelson and Lawson Little.

Therefore, since Phil doesn't turn 36 until the week of the U.S. Open—step three on the Phil Slam after Baltusrol and Augusta—and he seemed to win this Masters without even perspiring, there's every reason to expect him to climb higher up the chart over the next several years. Bad for Tiger Woods, maybe, but good for golf.

Phil got some help from Tiger at Augusta when Tiger hit three balls in the water and finally hit the wall on putts. Six three-putts, after three-jacking only nine times in his four wins there. After years of holing just about everything, Tiger looked as if he couldn't believe nothing would go in. Didn't the ball know who was putting it?

But it gave Tiger something in common with three of the past greats. Arnold Palmer played the best golf of his career, tee to green, at Oakmont in the '62 U.S. Open, but lost to Nicklaus. In turn, Jack might have played the best golf of everybody at Pebble Beach in the '82 U.S. Open, but he lost it to Tom Watson. And then there was Hogan at Olympic in the '55 U.S. Open, when along came somebody named Jack Fleck.

Stuff happens. But of course it had never happened to Tiger before.

In Sunday's final round, Fred Couples was just as atrocious as Tiger on the greens, if not more so from short distances, but that's the way Freddie has always played, isn't it?

It was nice to watch that pairing of Mickelson and Couples, though. Two friends enjoying the challenges of Sunday at the Masters. Two guys on the tour who actually know and like each other.

The best thing to say about this victory is that Phil did it the old-fashioned way. Played solid golf, avoided the double and triple. Never made any monster putts, never chipped in or holed out a pitch, didn't bounce balls off of everything on the property and wind up in the fairway—as Tiger did a year ago.

It was an all-new, very confident Phil. The kid who showed up at Augusta 15 years ago with his shirt collar turned up now has his hair flopping all over it. The guy who invented the flop shot now has a short-game coach and a long-game coach; who did that before him?

Maybe the two drivers did it. He carried two Callaway Big Bertha Fusion FT-3 models with 9.5 degrees of loft, one for draws and one for fades.

"It paid off big-time," said Rick Smith, Phil's longtime guru. "Now he hits a big, beautiful draw that goes about 20 yards farther than the fade. He's got the best of both worlds."

Uh-oh. Stand back, folks. Phil's not just a guy who now wins majors with regularity, he's a club seller, too.