PEBBLE BEACH — When Phil Mickelson recently admitted that his goal of 50 PGA Tour wins probably was out of reach, it had the faint whiff of capitulation. Seven more wins; yeah, that just seemed a bridge too far.
But capitulation definitely is not something Phil will do next—and we all know that Phil will do just about anything.
More than halfway to his 49th birthday, Mickelson appears to still be giving his all. He’s still trying to hit moon shots and groove the sweet spot and perfect the imperfect art of golf. He’s still looking for magic. It’s noble how he so assiduously combats the dulling effects of age, not to mention the psoriatic arthritis, and remains wedded to the idea that his brand of golf—not so much high risk but high tension—remains a viable avenue to any further success.
It’s up to Paul Casey or someone else to prove him wrong Sunday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, because Mickelson is in contention—again—for his 44th tour title at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Fueled by a rare eagle at the 14th hole, the California native shot a two-under 70 on a chilly afternoon and posted 12-under 203, leaving him three behind Casey, the native of England, who nervously admits he’s still learning the famed Monterey Peninsula layout.
Mickelson, meanwhile, has won this event four times, and enjoys what he calls “emotional ties” here. His grandfather, Al Santos, was one of the original caddies at Pebble Beach, looping for 25 cents a bag. “We would talk about this place and what it meant to him growing up,” the left-hander said.
Just two weeks ago Mickelson led the Desert Classic after opening with his second career 60 only to see upstart Adam Long steal the victory with a cosmic burst of putting brilliance in the final round. Lefty was rightly disappointed. How many more chances can he get? When he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, it appeared that the disappointment lingered.
Nah. Mickelson had been testing a new driver in Arizona, searching for yet a few more yards off the tee. “I took a chance,” he admitted. “I had been working on getting a different driver in play, and I took a chance thinking I had figured something out, and I ended up driving it awful. And I went back to the driver I played well with in Palm Springs, and I'll stay with that all the way through Augusta.”
On Friday, after a four-under 68 at Spyglass Hill, Mickelson talked about finding five to six miles per hours of clubhead speed. With what, pixie dust? “That rarely ever happens to anybody, let alone [to] somebody in their late 40s,” he said. “So that led me to be pretty optimistic heading into this year. So I think that’s going to lead to some good things.”
No, it was not pixie dust. It was implacable resolve.
Mickelson last year embarked on a hot streak on the West Coast that culminated in his first tour win in nearly five year at the WGC-Mexico Championship, but he faded badly as the year progressed, posting just one more top-10 finish and failing to be a factor in the majors.
Instead of becoming discouraged, he hit the gym and had a biomechanics study of his swing done. He also hired a nutritionist and changed his diet.
At “The Match” in November against Tiger Woods in Las Vegas, Mickelson looked more clear-eyed and vibrant then he had at the Ryder Cup. His wife, Amy, said he had stepped up his offseason workouts and that she had never seen him work harder.
His driving average this season of 316 yards ranks fifth on the PGA Tour and is more than 15 yards longer than his average last season. Remember, he’s almost 49.
“To begin with he’s a strong man, and he’s gotten stronger,” said Mickelson’s swing coach, Andrew Getson. “His swing is in sync and he’s getting through the ball faster with more control. It looks good.”
After consecutive bogeys at Nos. 9 and 10, a stretch during which rain moved in and chilled the air for the remainder of the day, Mickelson used his power to get back into contention. He bombed a 300-yarder at the par-4 13th to set up a wedge that he stopped three feet from the hole for a birdie. He seldom reaches the uphill par-5 14th hole in two, but he unleashed two exceedingly aggressive swings to get home. His drive traveled 331 yards and he followed with a 4-iron from 237 that expired four feet below the hole. He converted for eagle.
“Yeah, the drive on 14 was a hellacious bomb,” he said with notable relish. “That thing was way out there. I can barely reach that hole ever and I had 4-iron in. So that thing was pretty nasty. And I went after it pretty good.”
Now he has another chance to go after win No. 44. The weather forecast doesn’t look particularly good—Crosby weather has been a staple this week—but Mickelson embraces the adverse conditions. He ought to. He sometimes creates his own adverse conditions out of the wild shots he delivers.
Make no mistake, though, Mickelson won’t stop trying. So what he if never gets to 50 wins or completes the career grand slam—which, by the way, he will try to do again in June right here at Pebble Beach when the U.S. Open returns. The game is too much a part of him. Capitulate? No way. Phil Mickelson will go down swinging.