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The Phoenix Open was all too happy to serve as a warmup act for the Super Bowl last week, moving its final round from Sunday to Saturday so as not to distract from the world-stopping extravaganza only 30 miles away. But when the weekend was over, the NFL—whose ultimate show seldom produces a Roman numeral worth remembering—had to be envious of the overtime demonstration of full-contact golf put on by the baby-faced duo of Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard.
Despite its deferential posture, Phoenix Open LVI (that's 56 for an event that began in 1935) was everything a tournament this side of a major championship could hope to be. First of all, the spacious and strategically mounded TPC of Scottsdale was packed with the biggest golf crowds ever seen, with a record 156,875 roaring over the landscape on Saturday. It had a final round that included a pair of 62s, by Mark Calcavecchia and Curt Byrum, and a 60, by Grant Waite. Most of all, on Saturday everyone was swept away on a 21-hole roller-coaster ride with two classically matched adversaries whose youth, hunger and talent promise many more such showdowns.
When the final birdie dropped at dusk, what seemed to rise above the saguaros—above the urgings of "Be the ball, Phil," and, yes, the newest war cry in golf, "I love you, man," and even the fleet of hot-air balloons that hovered ubiquitously over the proceedings—was the indomitable will of Mickelson. By firing a final-round 67 that included enough stops, starts and cliffhangers to suit a silent movie, the 25-year-old lefthander clawed his way into a playoff with the callow but seemingly more solid Leonard, who immediately went for the kill with the quiet precision of a hit man.
But Mickelson survived by lifting himself to a new level of brinkmanship. On the first playoff hole, after Leonard had hit an eight-iron to six feet, Mickelson answered with a nine-iron to eight feet. Both holed their putts. On the second hole Mickelson went from bunker to bunker. and was left with a 20-footer to stay alive. He made it. "That's one of the most exciting feelings I've ever had," he said later. "I felt just like I did at the Ryder Cup." Inspired, he closed the deal on the third sudden-death hole—the devilish 285-yard, par-4 17th—with a pitch-and-putt birdie that Leonard couldn't match.
Wielding a 60-degree wedge like a magic wand, Mickelson got up and down four times over the last nine holes by relying on variations of his patented "super flop"—the high-risk pop-up shot he grooved as a youngster. The most vital save occurred at the aforementioned 17th during regulation. There, after Mickelson had taken a one-stroke lead with a spectacular birdie on the par-3 16th, he chose to gamble with a driver, which he pushed into a water hazard. With Leonard facing an easy chip that would lead to a birdie, Mickelson took a fast, full swing from less than 25 yards from his target, and with the utmost precision nipped a high-flying lob that landed like the proverbial butterfly with sore feet. The resulting six-inch tap-in for par kept him tied with a hole to go.
The results of Mickelson's high-wire act were no surprise to Leonard, who steeled himself in advance to expect the impossible. "That's Phil," said Leonard, whose own lack of mastery of the flop kept him from saving par on the 70th hole after a well-struck six-iron shot rolled down an embankment. "You always expect your opponent to make a shot, but with him, you really expect him to make it. If he misses a green, he has as good a chance of making a birdie as a guy with a 15-footer. I've seen his act before, but he definitely put on a clinic today."
To borrow the favorite phrase of noted Super Bowl sage Chuck Noll, Mickelson owed his success in the Valley of the Sun to doing "whatever it takes." He may appear, to the rashly judgmental eye, to be a soft pretty boy, and that simpering smile can grate. But make no mistake, Mickelson possesses the gift most treasured by elite athletes. He is a closer, a finisher, a killer, a winner. To the bone. "All his life, no matter if it was Little League, junior golf or an Atari game, Phil always got it done," said his older sister, Tina, who cheered her brother on in Phoenix. "You just know he is going to find a way to do it. You're more surprised when he doesn't than you're excited when he does."
By following his victory in Tucson two weeks earlier with an even more magical triumph in the town where he attended college and now lives, Mickelson has revived a mystique that was being dismissed as hype in some quarters. After a seemingly lethargic 34-month period from the spring of 1993 to the end of last year during which he won only two events, he surrendered the unofficial crown as the most prominent young player to Ernie Els. His latest pair of wins completes an Arizona sweep that hadn't been accomplished since golf's original Desert Fox—Johnny Miller—did it in 1974 and again in 1975. They also bring Mickelson's career-victory total to seven, making him the youngest to achieve that number since Jack Nicklaus. More significant, Mickelson also tied Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Lee Janzen as the American golfers with the most PGA Tour victories since 1991. He now has a chance to put together the monster year that eluded both Love and Couples after their fast starts in 1992, as well as Peter Jacobsen last year.
Mickelson's new momentum was not gained by accident. Disappointed by his performance in 1995, in which he placed 28th on the money list and had only four top-10 finishes, Mickelson decided that he had lost his mental edge and needed to rekindle his desire to be a champion. To get back on top, he was determined to improve in several areas, starting with his swing. Although Mickelson is primarily a feel player whose strength is his excellent rhythm and tempo, he is working to widen his backswing are in order to take the "steepness" out of his forward swing. The goal is to create a strike that produces less backspin and sidespin and is thus more accurate and easier to control. Mickelson is also trying to reduce the amount of lower-body slide in his forward swing.
Mickelson is making an effort to improve his concentration and patience, particularly in the first two rounds of tournaments, so that he is not out of contention so often on the weekends. He is continuing to work on a longtime weakness, lag putting. Though Mickelson's stroke is often compared to Ben Crenshaw's, he leaves himself entirely too many five-and six-foot comeback putts, the kind that can quickly age even a 25-year-old. Ultimately, because of his competitive. nature and history as a player who converts chances into victories, what Mickelson most needs to bring out his best is to go head-to-head with tournament leaders as often as possible.