Although they have played dozens of rounds together and there is always some spare change riding on the outcome, Gary McCord laments the fact that he has never won a lousy dime off his friend and neighbor Phil Mickelson. Last fall they were engaged in a friendly wager at the Geronimo Course at Desert Mountain in Carefree, Ariz., when the round reached its customary climactic moment. "Lefty has an 18-footer for a birdie to win on 17, and I've pressed him a hundred different ways," McCord remembers. "So I stand right behind him, directly in his line, and I start working the change in my pocket. Then, wouldn't you know it, I develop this nasty cough. Finally he peeks back at me and says, 'Hey, Gary.' I figure he's caught me, so I start to move, but he says, 'Why don't you stand right behind the hole so you can have a nice view of this one dropping?' Sure enough, he drills it smack in the middle. It was like getting my wisdom teeth extracted. After that putt he got to write me off as a dependent on his tax return."
The moral? Don't mess with old man Mickelson. In his two previous visits to Augusta National, the course teased Mickelson unmercifully. He finished no higher than 34th. But this year, at the advanced age of 24, he almost got even, shooting a 66 on Thursday and cruising to within one stroke of the lead after three rounds before fading to finish tied for seventh. If only McCord could have sneaked in on Sunday to press Lefty on the 6th and 7th holes, on which Mickelson combined for seven putts, Mickelson might have won his first major championship.
Mickelson's strong showing in Augusta might halt, at least temporarily, the whispers that he'll never live up to his enormous hype. Apart from his top-10 finishes in the '93 and '94 PGA Championships, Mickelson has a woeful professional record in majors. He missed the cut in the '92 U.S. Open, did not qualify in '93 and finished 47th last year. In the British Open he failed to qualify in '92, skipped qualifying in 1993 and missed the cut in '94, which lends credence to the theory that the reason he has won only in the western U.S. is that he can't play in wind.
Mickelson will remember the '95 Masters not only for the fact that he finally got into contention at Augusta, but also because it was the first time he played there without being lauded as the sport's young phenom by everybody, including himself. He was no longer the latest in a huge and mostly forgotten platoon of golfers ordained as the next Nicklaus. All week long Mickelson relaxed while a tornado of hype swirled around Tiger Woods. "The more I've played, the more I've realized that the only thing that speaks are what scores are shot," Mickelson said Sunday. "That's what tells other people about how good you are. In the past if I ever said things that made me sound cocky, I didn't mean to. And I've tried to knock that off. I really don't worry about who is labeled the best young player."
"Arnold [Palmer] was there when I came onto the scene, and every year since there's always a new kid arriving," Nicklaus says. "Phil knows he has to play his own game. You can't push time, and you can never look over your shoulder."
Dean Reinmuth, who has coached Mickelson for a decade, will tell you that his prize pupil has never been obsessed by his competition, preferring to challenge himself. Reinmuth recalls the first time he saw Mickelson, when Phil was a 14-year-old participating in a junior golf school at Pinehurst. Mickelson was involved in a casual closest-to-the-pin contest from a greenside bunker. Davis Love Jr., who was running the clinic, dropped a ball for Mickelson, and when it plugged in the sand like a poached egg, Love reached down to improve the lie. "Don't bother," Mickelson said. "I can get it close from there." He blasted it stiff.
After winning three NCAA tournaments and a PGA event while at Arizona State, Mickelson has added three more PGA victories since he joined the Tour in '92. The only other player to win four Tour events as early as age 24 was Nicklaus. "Phil's blown his kid image with all his victories," Paul Azinger says. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a wily veteran."
Says Mark O'Meara, "Phil has so much talent and so much experience already, you sometimes forget his age. When I was 24, I was killing myself just to win once."
For all his success, including a win at the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson early this year, Mickelson struggled in preparing for the Masters. He shot 73 or higher in nine of his last 18 rounds before the tournament and missed the cut four out of six times coming into Augusta.
"Golf can humble you, but Phil has shown that he can deal with the success and the slumps," Peter Jacobsen says. "Phil's always been a real friendly kid, always quiet, a little shy. Sometimes when you come in with a big reputation, it's tough to be one of the guys, but he's assimilated quite well. It's not like he came out of college with a $60 million contract like Big Dog Robinson and thinks he's descended from on high."