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Finally, a golf star without angst. At last, a touring pro who doesn't worry that making the big putt will cause his phone to ring. Hallelujah, a winner who doesn't feel persecuted when a reporter asks if he has any hobbies.
Phil Mickelson is the winsome winner. On Sunday, Mickelson, a 22-year-old former San Diegan, thrilled the home folks by winning the Buick Invitational by four shots over Dave Rummells at Torrey Pines, where he had first played as a seven-year-old. For Mickelson—a three-time NCAA champ, a two-time Walker Cupper and the 1990 U.S. Amateur titlist—the win was his first as a pro, and it gave hope to golf fans who have been praying that the "next Nicklaus" won't be a Jack Nicklaus at all, but an Arnold Palmer embracing the limelight.
Actually this was Mickelson's second Tour victory, but when he won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as a junior at Arizona State, he declined the $180,000 check to retain his amateur status. Mickelson, who plays lefthanded, hasn't even celebrated his first anniversary as a pro. But since Palmer won his first tournament, in 1955, no talented player has seemed so eager to assume the mantle of stardom. And like Palmer, Mickelson considers the price of fame—the loss of privacy, the autographs, the numbing banality of small talk with strangers—cheap enough, given the lift he feels between the gallery ropes.
"I absolutely love it," Mickelson said an hour after leaving the 18th green with a torrid final-round 65. "I can't put it in words, how much I enjoy the competition, the galleries, the whole thing."
He doesn't have to put it into words. When his putts are dropping, as they were on Sunday, Mickelson is eloquent with his dimples alone. The Mickelson smile (smirk, some would say) may seem more the practiced response of a Vegas showman than Arnie's genuine grin, but it conveys his urge to please. The other Mickelson devices—his twirling of the club as he takes his stance, the turned-up collar—are derivative. But no golfer since Nicklaus has packaged himself so astutely. And Mickelson has this advantage: He truly wants to be the fellow he portrays.
By comparison, Fred Couples and Davis Love III, last year's emerging American superstars of golf, treated nearly every win the way a man in an airtight room treats every breath—ambivalently. John Daly enjoyed his celebrity but couldn't handle it. "The attention is very flattering," says Mickelson. "But obligations and responsibilities go with it, and not everybody wants to deal with them."
Mickelson was slow out of the gate last summer, missing a few cuts before finishing second at the New England Classic in July. This year he shared the third-round lead at Tucson but faded on Sunday. Torrey Pines was different.
With his mother, father, sister, teachers, coaches and every classmate he had ever hustled for a dollar in the gallery, Mickelson battled squally weather for two rounds and then surged to within a stroke of the lead on Saturday. On sunny Sunday he teed off in the final group with Rummells, a veteran of eight pro seasons, and former U.S. Open and PGA champion Payne Stewart. His partners played well; Mickelson played better, rolling in three birdie putts on the front side and live more on the back to end up seven under par for the day and 10 under for the tournament. Said a wowed Rummells, "I think he's going to be one of the great golfers of all time."
Mickelson's reaction? "Relief," he said. "My expectations and the public's expectations were so high that it was a little frustrating not to win last year."
Rejoice! American golf has a winner who won't run and hide.