David Toms, a down-the-middle golfer with a plain manner and the drab clothes of the modern professional, had just made a hole in one. It was a 227-yard shot, over a pond, that landed on the green and bounced three times before smacking the flagstick and disappearing into the dark safety of the 15th hole at the Atlanta Athletic Club. This was last Saturday, in the third round of the PGA Championship. Suddenly Toms, at age 34, had a one-stroke lead in the year's last major—a one-stroke lead over the anti-Toms, the flamboyant Phil Mickelson, with his alligator-skin shoes and his Hugo Boss duds and his outsized talent.
For a moment Toms looked as though he didn't know what to do. His playing partner, Shingo Katayama of Japan, with the toy rodeo hat and the infectious enthusiasm, was smiling more than Toms was at the ace. Then Toms, a lifelong Louisianan, started whooping as if he were at one of his beloved LSU football games. The crowd whooped it up too, as it does whenever a hole in one is made, but it wasn't the kind of pandemonium that would have erupted if Mickelson had hit the shot.
Mickelson was at the next hole. "I heard the noise," he said after the round. "It didn't sound to me like a hole in one." He wasn't being mean, only truthful. Had Mickelson made that ace, he would have put on his "aw, just lucky again," Cheshire-cat grin, and his fans would have been delirious. They've suffered with him long enough.
This PGA was supposed to be the one at which Mickelson, 31, busted out and won his first major. He had been in contention at the Masters in April and at the U.S. Open in June. Tiger Woods was struggling with his game—so much so that he had to battle to make the cut. Lefty's time had arrived.
Mickelson has won 19 Tour events. He has endorsement contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. He lives in a mansion in Scottsdale, Ariz., and flies around the country in his own private jet. Before the first ball was struck at Atlanta, he spoke of his desire not only to win but also to dominate, to claim victory by "a certain number of strokes." That would add to the majesty of the walk up the 18th fairway on Sunday, knowing he could six-putt and still win. That's the kind of thing Woods has done. Mickelson is the best player never to have won a major, and, as gracefully as he wears that sash, he was ready to bury it.
Toms is a more anonymous sort. He had won five times on the Tour before last week but has no million-dollar endorsement deals. When he needs to get on a plane, either he or his wife, Sonya, calls their travel agent.
The two men came to Atlanta with a bit of shared history, although Mickelson may not have known it. When he was at Arizona State and Toms at LSU, they played in the same NCAA tournament in 1989. ( Mickelson, a freshman, won it; Toms, a senior, finished eighth.) Toms was a nice college player, even made All-America in the 1988-89 season. Mickelson was a legend, a prodigy who holed impossible shots. He was a four-time first-team All-America. In January 1991, when Mickelson was a college junior, he won a Tour event, the Tucson Open. At that moment Toms, who had turned pro in '89, was packing his bags for the Asian tour, going wherever he needed to go to learn the professional game.
In the years since, Mickelson has become more aware of Toms. In May, at the Tour stop in New Orleans, Toms closed with a 64. Mickelson, who had begun the day with a three-stroke lead, scuffled home in 72, finishing second, two shots behind Toms.
Last week they stayed in their roles. Mickelson spoke of his desire "to steal one back" from Toms. Toms said that if he were a golf fan instead of a touring pro, Mickelson would be the guy he would follow—for the bombs he hits off the tee, for his frequent chip-ins, for the excitement of his game.
Then came Sunday afternoon, when they were paired in the final group, the only two golfers in the field to have broken 200 for the first three rounds. (Toms had shot 66, 65, 65—14 under par on the par-70 course, which measures 7,213 yards. Mickelson had shot 66, 66, 66.) After 14 holes Mickelson had to defer one dream: He could still win, but he couldn't win big. Toms, even though he was outdriven by Mickelson by 50 yards on some holes, was still leading by two. Then came the 15th. The flashy one chipped in for a birdie, while Toms found a bunker off the tee and made a bogey. Mickelson had a share of the lead again.