How many times has Tiger Woods heard it? The next great one, that's what they call him. How many times has he suffered the comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, the last great one? Way too many. But you know what? Woods hasn't heard it as often as Phil Mickelson. Yes, Woods has great promise, but Mickelson, 26, has already traveled beyond mere expectations.
Mickelson's not the next Nicklaus—no one is, nor should anyone be burdened with that kind of label—which is what made Mickelson's fasten-your-seat-belt victory in the Bay Hill Invitational so delicious, so unexpected, so perfect. He won Arnold Palmer's tournament on Palmer's home course, the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, with a genuine, nine-gauge Arnold Palmer charge on the back nine on Sunday.
Mickelson did all this on the week that Palmer returned to competition after taking two months off to recover from prostate cancer surgery. After Arnie had slipped the blue champion's jacket around Mickelson's shoulders, Mickelson confessed, "I got up this morning and thought, What would Mr. Palmer do on a day like this? I thought of him holding that putter up, giving it the old Arnie charge, and how cool it would be if I did that. I tried to emulate the master."
Then Mickelson recounted how something Palmer had revealed to him, like Yoda to Luke, during a practice round at the Masters, helped him win at Bay Hill. Mickelson recalled walking up the 18th fairway at Augusta National when Palmer stopped, pointed and said, "There. Right there. That's where it happened."
"What happened?" Mickelson asked.
"That's where, in 1961, a friend waved me over and congratulated me on winning consecutive Masters. I had the audacity to shake his hand and say thank you. I proceeded to knock it in the bunker, make double bogey and lose to Gary Player by a shot."
On Sunday, as he waited on the 17th tee with a two-shot lead over Stuart Appleby and two dangerous holes ahead, Mickelson reflected on Palmer's lesson: Stay focused; the tournament's not over yet. Then he executed a couple of smart shots—a four-iron at the par-3 17th, where Fuzzy Zoeller lost the tournament in 1994 by knocking a ball off a fan's head and into the water, and a pin-high approach with a six-iron at the mean 18th—to par in and win by three with a 16-under-par 272.
But if the finish was a lesson in self-control, the charge that set it up was positively Palmeresque. When Mickelson reached the 11th tee, he had made six straight pars and was three strokes behind Appleby, a revived Payne Stewart and Nike tour grad Omar Uresti. Then Mickelson went birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie, par, birdie. That's 30 on the back nine, thank you. "Phil started making every putt," said Loren Roberts, who was paired with Mickelson, closed with a 70 and tied for sixth. "At the 12th [a 570-yard par-5] he hit driver, driver, 50-footer—swish! That was it. That was the turning point. He played aggressively and never hit a shot off line. Shoot 30 on the back side when you're on the leader board, and you're going to win almost every time."
Until Mickelson's charge, the tournament could've been called the Honda Classic North. Just like the previous week, there was Appleby, the 25-year-old Aussie whose breakthrough win at Heron Bay had been so impressive, and Stewart, who had finished a stroke back of Appleby only because he missed a two-foot putt and failed to birdie two easy par-5s on the way in.
On Sunday, Appleby just missed an eagle at the 4th hole but made one two holes later to take the lead. Then his putter went cold, and he could make only one birdie on the closing nine. Still, he has emerged as a contender for best Australian on Tour. "It was a sour finish to a day that was better than that," said Appleby, who lives across the street from Bay Hill. "I knew Phil was the man, that I had to chase him down. It was stimulating."