Phil Mickelson makes news even in absentia, and when he does show up on Tour he tends to produce bold-faced headlines. If Tiger Woods is this generation's Nicklaus—an automaton of unequaled proficiency—Mickelson has become a latter-day Palmer, a hot-blooded and unpredictable performer whose defeats are as memorable as his victories. Mickelson's play teeters between the spectacular and the maddening, often on the same hole, and last week's victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic was a vintage performance.
Mickelson, resurfacing after a five-month layoff, opened with an auspicious 64. He shot the same number on Sunday to force a playoff, with David Berganio Jr., which Mickelson won by nearly holing a wedge shot on the first extra hole. This followed an outrageous flop shot on the final hole of regulation that can be described only as Mickelsonian (page G14). It was an important finishing kick, erasing some of the doubt from a 2001 season during which Mickelson dramatically raised the level of his game but too often stumbled on Sunday. "This is a year that I've been very much looking forward to," he said Sunday evening. "I feel as if my game has slowly evolved to get where it is today."
This makeover—toward a shorter, tighter swing and more precise wedge game—began in the wake of the 1999 U.S. Open, a near miss that heralded Mickelson as a consistent contender at the majors: He has top 10s in seven of the last 12, though he has famously never won. Even so, Mickelson remains golf's most potent week-in-and-week-out force. In 2001 he led the Tour in eagles (20) and in birdies per round (4.49), and at the Hope blasted his way to 35 birdies in 90 holes. Mickelson's brand of smash-mouth forces comparisons to a freewheeling lefthander from another sport. "He's like Randy Johnson," says Steve Loy, Mickelson's agent. "Phil rolls up birdies the way Johnson does strikeouts. When he's good, he's overpowering, but when he's bad, anything can happen."
On Sunday, Mickelson uncorked a couple of loose shots that could've been fatal. On the 18th hole, a 532-yard par-5 at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., he flared a four-iron that came to rest only a pace from the water's edge. On the same hole in sudden death, he yanked his drive into a bunker, momentarily ceding the advantage to Berganio. Mickelson overcomes these lapses in technique with fearlessness—he's 5-1 in playoffs, not to mention 3-0 in Ryder Cup singles.
The victory was the 20th of Mickelson's career; Woods (29 wins) is the only other player under 50 to have reached the big two-oh, which is typical. No matter what Mickelson does, he always seems to be trailing Woods. However, the gap is narrowing. Last year Lefty reduced Woods's lead in the World Ranking by more than 60%, and made a huge dent in the money list deficit (from $4.4 million to $1.3 million). Woods may be the best player in golf, but it's worth noting that in 2001 Mickelson was No. 1 in the all-around stat, and this didn't include bonus points for being a good guy. Long after the final putt dropped on Sunday, Mickelson spent a half-hour signing more autographs than Woods will proffer in a season. Mickelson is also the Tour's most high-profile family man. Part of the reason for his extended off-season was the case of colic his 12-week-old daughter, Sophia, has been suffering. "I was able to help out a lot," says Mr. Mom.
From the Hope the Mickelsons left for Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to spend the first night in their new house. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we'll be able to turn on the lights," the missus, Amy, said on Sunday evening.
Not to worry. When Phil Mickelson is around, there's never an absence of electricity.