To the unpracticed eye, Phil Mickelson's victory last week at the GTE Byron Nelson Classic looked as if it were achieved by casually batting the ball around the Texas prairie for three rounds before en-listing two fourth-round eagles on Sunday to fly him home for an easy two-stroke victory over Australia's Craig Parry.
Such reasoning would be eminently excusable. While his peers were laboring for two weeks at Greensboro and Houston, Mickelson barely touched a club. He arrived in Dallas with only a few days of practice under his belt. After the Wednesday pro-am he went directly to a Texas Rangers game at The Ballpark in Arlington rather than take even a cursory tour of Cottonwood Valley, one of the two courses to be played during the tournament. Nevertheless, last Friday, setting foot on the course for the first time, Mickelson shot a second-round 65 to take a one-shot tournament lead. Then, still holding a one-stroke lead the night before the final round, the 25-year-old played three-on-three basketball at Fred Couples's nearby Piano home with fellow pros Jay Haas, Davis Love III, Peter Jacobsen and Tom Purtzer.
"It's a fun tournament," Mickelson tossed off when prodded about his seemingly casual approach after Friday's round. "I just wanted to have a fun week. It's kind of a bonus to be in contention."
The theme seemed to continue on Sunday. Mickelson stepped out on the TPC at Four Seasons-Las Colinas and holed a 40-footer on the 1st hole for a birdie, chipped in for another on the 4th and eagled the par-5 7th to take a three-stroke lead. When he holed a miniflop with his 60-degree wedge for an eagle at the 16th, he slammed the door. Two solid pars later and Mickelson had fashioned a closing 66 for a 15-under-par total of 265 to win his third tournament of the year, the eighth of his career, and his first as a pro east of the Rockies. The victory also gave him more than $1 million in 1996 earnings and placed him back atop the year's money list with the heart of the season still ahead, putting him on track for a monster year. So what's not fun?
Plenty. Mickelson may not show it, but, to borrow an image originated by the even more phlegmatic Julius Boros, he may be smiling on the outside, but razor blades are grinding away in his stomach. At the Nelson, Mickelson's rusty ball striking worried him, as did his short putting, which, as was evident during his third-place play at the Masters, is less than rock solid. Despite his previous two victories, as well as a second and a third, Mickelson had not slept on a lead in a tournament all year until Friday. On Saturday, after his third-round 67, Mickelson was the last player to leave the practice range, and that night sleep was fitful. "When I woke up today," he said only half in jest on Sunday, "I was hoping for a rainout."
But down the stretch of the final round Mickelson was getting no help from the heavens. He gave back a third of his three-stroke lead when he three-putted from 35 feet on the 8th hole, and when he did the same thing on the 12th, the margin was down to one. Mickelson then blew a six-iron over the green on the 183-yard 13th and left himself a 15-foot par putt with his chip back, only to discover that he was tied with Parry, who was playing three holes ahead and had just birdied 16.
As he was reading the putt and the scoreboard, Mickelson momentarily hung his head. It appeared that his momentum was irretrievably slipping, and that he was about to give away a Sunday lead for only the second time in his four-year career. But when Mickelson raised back up, he proved that rather than succumbing to despair, he had been reaching down for something extra. He made the putt.
It was reminiscent of the 15-footer he had made for par to stay alive during his sudden-death win at Phoenix in January, and a vivid reminder of what makes the lefthander special. In the parlance of that Texas oracle Bum Phillips, he holds on to the rope. "I think Philip lives for those shots," said his fiancée. Amy McBride, amid the cheering.
There was more adversity to overcome. Still tied with Parry when he reached the 445-yard, par-4 15th, Mickelson "stacked" a six-iron to within five feet. But instead of draining the uphill, left-to-right putt, he watched his shot hit the left lip and horseshoe nearly back toward him. "That was a huge disappointment," he admitted. "It made 16 a must birdie."
After a good drive into the wind on the 554-yard par-5, Mickelson hit another driver from the fairway that stopped in a swale just to the left of the green, about 30 feet from the hole. With a sharp upslope between his ball and the hole, and the hole cut only 12 feet from the edge of the green, the shot required all the delicacy Mickelson could muster. He addressed the ball with his 60-degree wedge, nipped it off the ground perfectly and watched as it flopped onto the green before expiring into the hole.