The fellow in the corner, warily prodding fajitas with his fork, is making the case against Phil Mickelson. It doesn't mean a hell of a lot, the fellow says, to win 13 Tour events by the age of 28—not if your 13 doesn't include a major championship. You aren't in the same league as David Duval, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard or Tiger Woods if you are 0 for 26 in the tournaments that really matter. There's tournament golf, he continues, and then there's major tournament golf.
Since we aren't in a car, where you can terminate sports babble by poking the seek button, we let the guy go on. Besides, the fellow criticizing Phil Mickelson is none other than Mickelson himself, and it's fascinating the way he parses his career in a conspiratorial whisper, as if one of the pros at the next table might overhear and disagree with his bleak assessment of himself.
Isn't it unfair, we interject, to place so much emphasis on four randomly selected tournaments? No one faults Mark McGwire because none of his 70 home runs came in the World Series.
Lefty refuses to grab the lifeline. "I don't think it's unfair," he says. "The majors take golf to the highest level. The greens are faster and harder than you see anywhere else. The fairways are narrower. The rough is deeper. The majors challenge you in ways that regular Tour events don't."
Mickelson's humble soliloquy, delivered three weeks before this year's Masters, catches us by surprise. There is always some poor sap labeled "best player never to have won a major," and his patter invariably goes like this: I never give it a thought. Yeah, I get asked about it 30 or 40 times a day, but that doesn't bother me. I'd like to win one, but if I don't, it won't take anything away from my career. That's when you notice that the speaker has bent his spoon into a facsimile of the Volkswagen logo.
But here's Mickelson, straightening spoons with his candor. He knows he is breaking with tradition, not to mention his own practice. "In the past I've downplayed the majors," he admits, "but from now on they are the only tournaments that matter. I'm going to put all my emphasis on just those four."
We look for a maniacal gleam in his eyes, but Mickelson's betray nothing but his practiced sincerity. Later his wife, Amy, confirms his change of attitude. "He thinks that by now he should have won a major," she says. "I'm proud of him for not trying to duck it."
We are dealing, of course, with the famous Mickelson confidence. This is the guy who won a Tour event, the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, in Tucson, when he was still a junior at Arizona State; who hit a fearless flop shot off hardpan to turn the tide against the British and Irish at the '91 Walker Cup; who outdazzled Leonard in a playoff at the '96 Phoenix Open in the decade's best head-to-head battle of young stars; who won three out of a possible three points at Oak Hill in his first Ryder Cup. Mickelson's hobbies? Skiing and flying, naturally.
But there is a sense of late that Mickelson needs either a string of Tour wins or a victory in a major to recapture the public's attention, which has swung to Duval and Woods. (A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times: LEFTY IS SUDDENLY BEING LEFT BEHIND.) There is also a growing body of Mickelson skeptics who wonder why a player hailed so often for his silky putting stroke finishes so deep in the putting stats. "He's supposed to be this incredible putter," says a Tour pro who is otherwise impressed with Mickelson's game. "He must be holing a lot of them when we're not looking."
Or not. Last year Mickelson won twice, finished second twice and wound up sixth on the money list with a career-high $1.8 million—but ranked 80th in putting. This season he was 41st through the Bay Hill Invitational, averaging 1.766 putts per green hit in regulation.