Although Mickelson stops short of saying so, opting for the diplomatic assessment that he "learned a lot about how to handle pressure on and off the course" from the Ryder Cup, it is clear that he noticed that he handled it as well as anyone and better than most. It energized him for the 1996 season, as did consulting with his coach of more than a decade, Dean Reinmuth.
Reinmuth bluntly told Mickelson he had some holes that needed plugging. Most conspicuous was loose play at the beginning of tournaments that was causing him to either miss cuts or put himself too far back to contend. Another problem was an alarming tendency to run long birdie putts five feet past the hole, which was wearing down even Mickelson's nerves. "I told him, 'There are a lot of guys beating you who shouldn't be beating you,' " says Reinmuth. "I told him that by being sloppy, he was costing himself shots and the opportunity to use his greatest asset, which is the ability to raise his game when he gets in the hunt and win."
Competitiveness and talent alone will not make him a consistent winner. Mickelson in 1996 is more focused and efficient while practicing. He has been a fixture on the range, regularly hitting as many as 300 balls after his rounds, and usually in an isolated environment that includes very little chitchat. Obviously, the effort has paid off. After a rusty start at the Mercedes Championships, where he finished 28th out of 30 players, Mickelson has followed a blueprint of keeping in touch the first two days before turning explosive on the weekend. At San Diego, he putted poorly in an opening 68 and hit the ball erratically during a second-round 70. He made the 36-hole cut by just two strokes, but his 66-67 finish was equaled only by Love's (69-64). "I'm seeing results, and that just makes me want to work more," says Mickelson.
The only thing he does not have to work on is his competitiveness, which is at least partly inherited. Phil Mickelson Sr., an eight-handicap golfer, was a gymnast and skier in college, and later a Navy flight instructor before settling into a career as a commercial pilot. As a child, Phil Jr., a natural righthander, imitated his father's swing while facing him. Phil Sr. decided not to tamper with his mirror image, thereby producing that rarest of golfers, the lefthander. Mary Mickelson, Phil's mother, is an effervescent woman who channels her energy into an over-50 women's basketball team named the Hot Flashes. Their first son—the Mickelsons have an older daughter and a younger son—thrives on challenge, whether it be skiing, which Mickelson this week was expecting to try again for the first time since his accident, working toward his pilot's license or hitting trick shots for money.
In San Diego, Mickelson and fiancée Amy McBride were guests in his family's home. It meant Phil Jr. could revisit the backyard practice area where he learned—by day and by night—to be inventive with his wedges and deadly with his putter. It's where he would show his discoveries to his father, a ritual that Phil Sr. thinks is the root of his son's affinity for the big moment. "Phil loves pressure because it's the best opportunity to demonstrate a talent he has tremendous confidence in," he says.
Last week the backyard was also where he went one-on-one with Mary, whose intensity translated into several scores over her 6'2" son. Then again, Phil felt no compunction about stuffing several of his mother's spin moves.
Pressed on the issue of his growing reputation among fellow pros as someone who can handle the heat, Mickelson, who is leery of being seen as brash, cannot help but reveal his confidence. "I love and want to be in the most pressure-packed situations," he says. "I wanted to be in the last group at the Ryder Cup, and I wanted it to come down to my match. I thought that even though that would have been unbelievably stressful, it would have been the most enjoyable experience in the game of golf, whereas I believe other people would not have wanted to be in that situation."
That's a welcome attitude in today's golf world. It's not what we heard from Love or Fred Couples when they were hot in 1992, or even from a sizzling Nick Price in 1993 and 1994. There is a prevalent theory that any player who gets to the top will be pulled, by the heavy demands, into a sharp fall and will be to some degree relieved when the decline occurs. It's an attitude to which Mickelson cannot relate. "I know what I'm experiencing is nothing like what Norman and Price get," he says, "but I can't imagine not wanting to play well. No, I really want it." To Miller, who characterizes the modern Tour as a flock of thoroughbred sheep—well-bred, but unwilling to leave the pack—Mickelson sounds like the wolf the game needs. "Along with everything else, he's very hungry, and that's the real X factor," Miller says.
In order to satisfy that hunger, Mickelson will have to learn to say no, something that is against his nature. "That makes me feel like I'm being rude," he says. "But, for example, on Wednesday I did a radio show and two TV deals, and didn't have enough daylight to practice my putting, which needed some work. I went out the first day and putted atrociously. I will not let that happen again."
Although Mickelson has never won east of the Rockies, Azinger, for one, believes he has jumped to a plateau that will allow him to win seven or eight times this year. And after winning $603,540 in only four starts, Mickelson could also surpass the record $1,654,959 that Greg Norman earned last season. "I know how Phil thinks," says Azinger. "He thrives in the arena."