June 25, 2007

The People's Choice

Phil Mickelson adds another major by taking the PGA at Baltusrol

It must be the PGA Championship if it's August and you can sit down and talk to the heat or reach inside your shirt, where it's 110 degrees, and grab handfuls of humidity. And it must be the year's last major if it's Phil Mickelson's to win or lose all the way, and there are numerous lurkers around to make you wish you were a mystery writer instead of a golf writer so you could go in the monstrous old Baltusrol clubhouse, the house of a thousand gables, and look for a corpse behind every door.

Phil finally won it, the hard way, on Monday because of bad weather, with a birdie on the last hole, after nothing good happened to him — no chip-ins, no pitch-ins, no lucky bounces into the fairways, no putts that creased the cup and then dropped. Nothing. Other than the mistakes by his pursuers. What an odd collection they were, those guys who refused to go away until the final moments.

There was Davis Love III, a household name but one who hasn't won a tournament in two years. He somehow managed to remain a presence the last day and a half even though he kept hitting it off the golf course every chance he got, and it looked like his putter might stab him at any moment.

There was the solemn Thomas Bjorn, the man from Denmark who specializes in meltdowns. This one was more subtle. No resemblance to the three swings he took out of a bunker to hand the British Open to Ben Curtis two years ago, or the 86 he shot in the European Open earlier this summer when he was the 54-hole leader but managed to make an 11 at the 71st hole.

And finally there was '95 PGA winner Steve Elkington, who had pretty much done a vanishing act the past five years, though he did pop up as one of the thousands in the 2002 British Open playoff won by Ernie Els. One could only assume Elk had been devoting all that time to finding the ugliest golf shirts in history. They were loud, tight and skimpy to the point of looking more suitable for Mickelson's daughters. The best guess about the hideous polka-dot job that Elk wore on Sunday was that he bought it on eBay as an investment, believing it had once been worn by Joan Crawford.

As for Vijay Singh, let's just say that the defending champ probably found a bumpy gravel road after the tournament and dragged his putter out the car door until it couldn't hurt him anymore. And if Vijay was driving, John Daly was riding shotgun, doing the same after winning the putter fling on Saturday and using a lob wedge on the final eight greens. Big John, by the way, was 1-2 with Hal Sutton to see who could sweat off the most pounds. When it came down to crisis time, Phil had to make a birdie 4 on the last hole to win. That's where he smashed one of the best drives of his career under the circumstance, a tee ball that gutted the fairway.

On a side trip to Pine Valley the day before the PGA (for the record, he shot a 72, matching his final two rounds at Baltusrol), Phil was telling some friends about his new shot, which we'll call the Lob Drive. It flies higher than the standard issue and falls from the sky like a ball of cotton. Perfect for majors.

His 3-wood second into the wind at the 18th also looked good, but it sauntered slightly and wound up in the garbage right of the green. But the gouge chip/pitch was something Phil knew well, and he played it perfectly — to within two feet of the cup.

In the end, you had to say the right guy won. He played the best golf of the week, and he was particularly impressive during his third round when, as the leader, he was continually caught between playing offense and defense. No easy task. That 72 might easily have been a 76 or worse.

But he dug it out.

"It was one of the most stressful tournaments for me because I was on the lead or tied every night," Phil said. "There was an extra night thrown in there for good measure."

So what we have here is a confirmed superstar, a player who owns three majors: a Masters, a U.S. Amateur and a PGA. The 27th win of Phil's career puts him 21st all time at only age 35 (and, incidentally, pushed him past $35 million in career earnings). For a little perspective, Phil is only two wins behind Lee Trevino, and he's two ahead of Johnny Miller and five ahead of Raymond Floyd. Oh, and besides the trophies and the money, the fans love Phil, even if some of the other players roll their eyes at his aw-shucks routine.

Now about other matters.

Baltusrol is in Springfield, N.J, and it used to be only 45 minutes from Broadway, but that was back when families had only one car. The thing you can't escape from thinking about Baltusrol is that it's probably the most overrated work of A.W. Tillinghast, the legendary architect. Once it was revered as the place where Willie Anderson won his second U.S. Open, and where Jack Nicklaus won two of his four U.S. Opens, but we were young and impressionable then, and now we're creaky and grumpy and more selective. Aside from No. 4, a truly scenic par-3 water hole, and No. 17, which was turned into the majors' longest par 5 at 650 yards, there was nothing memorable about the course but trees and hospitality tents.

Some of us started thinking Baltusrol was something of a pushover back in '80 when Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf each shot a 63 in the opening round of the Open. A 67 used to be a great round in a major. Then this time Bjorn put another 63 on it in Saturday's third round before the course changed overnight.

On Friday, when all of the drama was built around Tiger Woods trying to make the cut, he needed to play the two closing par 5s in even par to do it. The 554-yard, downwind 18th was a two-shot gimme birdie, barring a three-putt, but the long one had to be handled first. After launching a 354-yard drive — think about that for a moment, and technology — Tiger pulled out the 3-wood to go for the green ("only 269 to the frontî) rather than going with a more conservative approach that would still give him a birdie chance while eliminating a bogey, or worse.

When that thunderous 3-wood shot veered left and found a nasty downhill lie against the back lip of a bunker, forcing him to play out backward on his way to a bogey 6, Tiger's comment was another flavorful audible for TV.

Some argued that he was still trying to win the tournament. From 12 shots back at the time? Question: Don't you need to make the cut first and then worry about winning the tournament? For whatever reason, Tiger was inconsistent at Baltusrol after l-2-1 finishes in the other majors. He was in trouble from the start, also making 6 at the 17th in a first-round 75, but he still finished only two strokes back.

Frankly, it's the opinion here that it wouldn't have been a good thing for the game if Tiger had let everyone give this major to him. It would have exposed the type of competition he's been beating.

So another nod to Phil Mickelson for taking care of that deal and making the history books look better.