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The question that dogs him is, Why stay in school at all? If he had turned pro before Tucson, Mickelson would have nearly $200,000 in tournament winnings to this point, with more to be made from corporate outings and endorsements. Instead, he flies around the country on an airline pass (his dad, who's retired, used to be a Republic Airlines pilot), stays in private homes during tournaments, and carries his own bag, as required, in college tournaments. In March, while his classmates were spending spring break in Palm Springs, Calif., and Rocky Point, Mexico, Mickelson stayed behind to play golf and study. But come on, could he really have studied while a crew from the video magazine The Wide World of Golf set up camera equipment under the beer-can mobile in his Tempe apartment?
"There are a couple of points here," he says, turning serious. "School is a commitment I made, and I don't feel that the degree [which he plans to get in the spring of 1992] is as important as fulfilling my commitment. That's the primary reason I'm staying. As for golf, I kind of set a four-year plan. I felt that in four years I could advance my game and be strong enough to compete on the PGA Tour. I'm three years through that, and the opportunity to play in Tour events is just helping me get acclimated while I'm in college. Does that make sense?"
Mickelson also wants to put his name on a few more lines of the amateur record book before he goes after the big money. Last summer, he matched Nicklaus's achievement of winning the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA championships in the same year. If he wins this year's NCAA on June 8 at Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach, Calif., Mickelson will join Ben Crenshaw as the only three-time NCAA winner, and he'll have a chance to win an unprecedented fourth as a senior.
"To be part of amateur golf history means a lot to me," he says. "I'm really intrigued with Bobby Jones. He was the greatest amateur golfer of all, and winning the U.S. Amateur, I felt closer to his mystique. Golf is built around, and always will be built around, the amateur."
That sort of talk causes a joyful flutter in the hearts of U.S. Golf Association officials, but Mickelson's practiced humility leads cynics to question his sincerity. "Is he for real with all this 'love of the game' stuff?" says one golf writer. Says another, "He acts like a guy who's trying to impress a girl's parents before taking her out on a date."
Mickelson is sensitive to the notion that his demeanor is as carefully coached as his swing. However, he makes no bones about one thing: He is polishing his act. "A golfer is an entertainer, much like an actor," he says. "People pay money to go out and watch you play, and I don't think they pay just to watch you hit a drive down the middle, hit a shot on the green and two-putt. That's why Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller are so popular. They are entertainers as well as golfers."
Mickelson's shtick is subtle, so far; you can't imagine him showing up at the first tee with a rubber snake, as Trevino did at the 1971 U.S. Open. He's polished. The kid has his turned-up collar, his deft way of twirling the club head during his pre-shot routine, his lounge-singer's trick of smiling and nodding acknowledgment in all directions after a good shot. So ingrained is this last habit that Mickelson walked onto a green at the San Diego Open in February, nodding left and right—and the gallery hadn't begun applauding yet.
"It's not flippant, it's not aloof," says PGA Tour official and Walker Cup player David Eger, who lost to Mickelson in the semifinals of last year's Amateur at Cherry Hills in Denver. "It's the cockiness Lanny Wadkins had back in the '70s, when he was in college. Phil doesn't bother anyone. He can back it up."
Little wonder that Mickelson drew the biggest galleries at Cherry Hills, or that he had more fans than Nick Faldo when he was paired with Faldo, the defending Masters champion, for the first round at Augusta. Mickelson wants not only to win but also not to disappoint. "Phil is like Arnold Palmer," says his longtime teaching pro, Dean Reinmuth, "in that he doesn't just like to play golf; he likes to play golf when people are there."
Reinmuth, who sometimes caddies for his pupil, recalls an incident at the Los Angeles Open: Mickelson hit a shot into the crowd near an access road. "Just as he's getting set to hit," says Reinmuth, "he looked up and said, 'You might want to move back; you never know.' And nobody moved. So he got set up again and was ready to hit it, when everybody decided, 'Hey, that's a great idea,' and they all shifted at the same moment. Phil just laughed and said, 'Well, you don't all have to move, I'm not that bad.' He has a natural playfulness because he likes people and he loves to play golf."