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Slippery little suckers, aren't they?"
Twenty-year-old Phil Mickelson seems to be enjoying his first encounter with escargots, even if he hasn't yet gotten one in his mouth. The Arizona State junior is doing his best with snail tongs and a fish fork, but the buttery mollusks are in an unplayable lie. Other diners in the pricey Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant are following his efforts closely; they may have to field a flying snail, a la the Julia Roberts scene in Pretty Woman.
"O.K., I eat the insides here?" asks Mickelson, who has finally coaxed the sluglike delicacy out of its shell and needs only a nod of assent to continue. Getting it, he pops the morsel into his mouth, chews tentatively and nods. "They're good. They're really good," he says.
He eats a second snail, and then a third. The folks at adjoining tables begin to relax. "I wonder how hard the shells are," says Mickelson. "Probably can't break 'em. I guess if you could squeeze 'em with this guy...." A shell suddenly squirts out of his tongs and rattles against its neighbors on the plate. Heads turn. Mickelson smiles sheepishly.
Amazing what you can learn about a fellow by putting him in front of a plate of snails. From this episode, one gathers that Mickelson is curious, playful, unsophisticated, adventurous (he ordered the snails) and not the least bit self-conscious. Of course, you could have concluded most of that in mid-January, just by picking up the sports pages and reading COLLEGE GOLFER WINS PGA TOUR EVENT, or by seeing his happy puss photographed under a conquistador's helmet, his trophy for winning the Tucson Open. Another hint came on the April cover of Golf Digest, which showed Mickelson, who plays lefthanded, demonstrating his patented backward-over-your-head greenside wedge shot.
He is already the most conspicuous American amateur since Bobby Jones. At the Masters three weeks ago, Mickelson shot a 69 in his first competitive round at Augusta National and found himself sharing the press-center podium with Jack Nicklaus. His four-round total of 290, two over par, earned him the silver cup for being low amateur. On May 16, with his eyes still puffy from college finals, he will tee up with the pros at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, his sixth pro tournament of the year. He has won three college tournaments this spring—in three attempts—and, if all goes according to plan, by summer's end he will have successfully defended his NCAA and U.S. Amateur titles, played in the U.S. Open and the British Open, and anchored the American team in its bid to wrest back the Walker Cup from the British and the Irish.
Is it surprising, then, that Mickelson's visibility does not extend to the classroom, where his trademark this spring was the empty seat? "My husband and I were both concerned about the amount of school he was missing," says his mother, Mary, an Escondido, Calif., retirement-home marketing director. "But he turns in his papers early and works out what will be covered with his professors. I thought it was going to be harder for him than it actually was."
"I think there are enough hours in the day to do what he wants to do," says his longtime girlfriend, sometime caddie and Arizona State classmate, Tana (I Knew Him Before He Was Good) Figueras. "He's a very focused and driven person."
Mickelson, a psychology major with a 3.0 grade point average, makes light of the demands on his time. Asked what he does on a typical school day, he says, "At 6:30 I watch Cheers. At 10 o'clock I watch Cheers. And on Thursdays, at 6:30, 8 and 10, I watch Cheers. Monday and Wednesday I do some homework."
In truth, Mickelson is no stranger to all-nighters, and he toted a Spanish textbook to this year's Tour events. "Spanish is the easiest course I have, because I don't have to be there to learn it," he says. "I had a really good Spanish teacher in high school, so a lot of this stuff's just review for me."