There are few things more dangerous in golf than being labeled as someone who has it all. So when even a short list of Phil Mickelson's attributes are counted—the seven PGA Tour victories, the U.S. Amateur title, the three NCAA championships, the classic rhythm, the magical short game, the syrupy putting stroke, the coolness under pressure, the telegenic looks—it's easy to worry.
Even after the hype-proof start to his 1996 season—two victories, at Tucson and Phoenix, that nearly became three in a row when he finished second to Davis Love III on Sunday at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, Mickelson's hometown—there is concern because there are simply no sure things in golf. Presenting someone as such is tempting fate. Ask Bobby Clampett. Ask Ben Crenshaw. Ask Jerry Pate.
Yet Mickelson possesses the one quality that might allow him to survive the weight of his growing legend—a diamond-hard core that is concerned only with winning and all that goes into it. It is an ethic his older peers respect, proved by the fact that they find the otherwise callow 25-year-old lefthander who keeps beating them likable rather than annoying.
Paul Azinger gets to the essence of Mickelson by recounting a small moment during the first round of the Diners Club Matches in December, when he teamed with Mickelson against Payne Stewart and Lee Janzen. It might have been a made-for-TV event at the end of a long season, but the pride factor among the four stars had created a high degree of tension. With his team 2 down on the 15th hole, Mickelson holed a sand shot for a winning birdie. He then birdied the 16th to even the match, and hit his tee shot stiff on the par-3 17th.
"Going up to the green, we are both walking together, but we aren't even looking at each other because it was so intense," recalls Azinger. "Without looking up, he says to me in that kid voice of his, 'You know, this is really, really good. I love this so much. I just love this.' I didn't answer, and he didn't say anything else. It was kind of eerie." Mickelson made his putt and birdied 18 to win the match 2 up. "What he said, when he said it, and the way he said it, that's not something you can fake," Azinger says of Mickelson's Pattonesque pronouncement. "That's the feeling all of us would like to have, but probably very few do. That's the feeling of a champion. I know Phil, and that's exactly who he is."
That sentiment is the reason Mickelson's sizzling start has caused so much anticipation. Burning up the West Coast is not a rare occurrence. Peter Jacobsen won two straight events early last year, while Steve Jones did the same in 1989. Each time it happens, projections of a monster year are tempered by more realistic expectations.
With Mickelson there is a belief that something big, something out of the ordinary, is taking shape. He is the first to sweep the Arizona events since Johnny Miller in 1974 and '75, and though Mickelson's wins were not the awe-inspiring blowouts perpetrated by Miller, they carried their own authority. He ended a scratchy final nine at Tucson with a dramatic chip-in on the 72nd, while at Phoenix—one of the most exciting Tour events in recent years—he birdied the third extra hole to defeat Justin Leonard. Both victories were achieved through tenacity more than technical brilliance, which inspired comparisons of Mickelson with Corey Pavin as the toughest American golfer.
A player who has been considered in such terms, Curtis Strange, is an unabashed fan. "When you think of Phil, you think of a guy who is going to win a lot of tournaments," says Strange. "What Phil has got is a sixth sense, a touch, an instinct, a feel, a way to win."
"I used to think of Phil as having this pretty game, sort of like Crenshaw, with the same easy demeanor," says Miller. "But what Phil is showing is that maybe after so many candidates, he might really be the guy with the heart of Nicklaus. When it gets down to winning, he does it."
This is a different tune than the one sung about Mickelson as late as last season. Yes, he had five victories sooner than anyone since Nicklaus, and the pedigree. But after all the buildup, there was a sense of letdown. Along with the turned-up collar and five-year endorsement deals, there was the long, loose swing, and a disturbing tendency to miss cuts and even lose interest. He has never finished better than 15th on the money list, and that was in 1994, when he missed three months after breaking his left leg and right ankle in a skiing accident in March. Last year most of his peers said that the truly great young player was Ernie Els, 26. They weren't sure whether Mickelson's smile concealed the heart of a killer or a coaster. The doubters nodded when Mickelson, after reaching the 68th hole of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills only a stroke out of the lead, double-bogeyed the 70th hole and finished in a tie for fourth, seemingly not ready for prime time. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Lanny Wadkins appeared to be among the disbelievers, holding Mickelson out of two of the five sessions at Oak Hill. But Mickelson answered by winning all three of the matches he did get into, including the final singles of the competition, when he came from 3 down after six holes to defeat Per-Ulrik Johannson 2 and 1. If his team had garnered half a point more, he would have been the hero.