At the first full-field event of the new season, the potential was as limitless as the horizon in Tucson's rarefied air. While other people tinker with their lives by making a few New Year's resolutions, PGA Tour players get a fresh start every January to shape their careers anew.
Tucson is the perfect place for the 26 rookies who teed it up to let optimism run unchecked. The record book at the Nortel Open is filled with exciting precedents, and every rookie there wanted to emulate Lee Janzen, Robert Gamez and Phil Mickelson and let a win at this event launch his career.
Of course, emulating Phil Mickelson would have been a lot easier had the real thing not gotten in the way.
Mickelson didn't stick his head into the helmet trophy last year after winning what was then known as the Northern Telecom Open, mindful of the painful scraping he took when he won the prize as an amateur in 1991, but this year the considerate Conquistadors had lined the trophy in leather for his comfort. He admitted to feeling slightly goofy as he fitted the shiny hat on his head, "but when you are handed this big check and this helmet, you really don't care."
Half of Mickelson's Tour wins have come in Tucson, and all but one in the first two months of the year. Though pleased to have once again firmed up his schedule for the weeks of the World Series of Golf and the Mercedes Championships, Mickelson explained that winning early can throw off the whole balance of the year: "After you win a tournament, you believe that you should be winning every week. You get up there and you just want to win. It doesn't give you the proper thought process. Because your expectations are so high, you start forcing things."
It's remarkable that a single win could so flummox a player who has had to compete under Jack Nicklaus-like expectations for years, although, as Mickelson himself pointed out, "it's been a while since anybody [made the comparison with Nicklaus], since I haven't won in a year."
Actually, the Nicklaus comparisons started fading two years ago, after the then 23-year-old Mickelson won his fourth tournament, the season-opening Mercedes. At the time he was the youngest to have won four since Nicklaus. He is still the youngest to have won six since the Bear, but by Mickelson's current age of 25, Nicklaus had won 14 times, including the Masters twice, the U.S. Open and the PGA.
Golf is somehow easier for Mickelson in Tucson—a tie for ninth is his worst finish there as a professional—and this year the route to victory was almost absurdly rudimentary. All he had to do was beat the Q school's graduating class and a handful of rusty veterans, catch up to and pass Joel Edwards, Ronnie Black and David Toms, and then hold off late Sunday challenges by Janzen and Bob Tway. All of which Mickelson accomplished on the Tucson National course he has played dozens of times, in fine playing conditions with a score four strokes higher than his winning total last year.
He was on an inexorable road to victory from the first round, when he shot a 69 at Starr Pass. Though four strokes off Larry Nelson's first-round lead, Mickelson's score was one of the best of the week at the Nortel's secondary course. Only five in the 158-man field bettered it. While Tucson National produced scores that averaged nearly a stroke under par, Starr Pass's average was more than 2� strokes over.
The penal design of Starr Pass, with its narrow fairways framed by an aggressive, often unplayable, desert environment, was much of the reason for the scoring, but the poor condition of the greens was a contributing factor. Three-putts were common, complaints were prevalent, and Rob Sample, the superintendent at Starr Pass, lost his job on Friday.