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Phil Mickelson welcomes pressure with a zeal that must tempt the golf gods. On Sunday as he climbed onto the 7th tee at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., during the final round of the season-opening Mercedes Championships, Mickelson looked like the fall guy in a cosmic comeuppance.
Only 50 yards away, he could see Tiger Woods thrusting his left fist skyward as his 40-foot eagle putt on the 9th hole disappeared into the cup. Amid the ensuing din Mickelson figured out that the five-stroke lead he had held over Woods at the start of the day was down to one. Then, as Mickelson further considered the awful possibilities, Mark O'Meara, paired with Woods, holed a 15-footer for birdie that also brought him within a stroke.
In the recent but largely forgotten days when Mickelson, not Woods, was the consensus choice as the future of golf, no one would have bet against him in such a situation. Mickelson was a legend in the making, an NCAA and a U.S. Amateur champion, a short-game genius and, above all, a fearless closer with a gift for winning.
A lot happened in a short time to dim that aura. In 1997, while the rise of golf's dominating twentysomethings was the talk of the Tour, the 27-year-old Mickelson's stock actually sank. Lefty won two tournaments, but his accomplishments paled compared with Woods's historic win at the Masters, Justin Leonard's first victory in a major, Ernie Els's second U.S. Open triumph and David Duval's three wins in a row. Mickelson's 11 PGA Tour victories were as many as Leonard's, Els's and Duval's combined, but he ended the year without finishing better than 24th in a major. More tellingly, Mickelson had become strangely fragile during the big moments.
Suddenly he was missing crucial short putts, spraying important drives and approach shots and mismanaging his game in the clutch. Mickelson grabbed the lead early in the third round of last year's PGA Championship only to immediately make a double bogey and eventually crash-land in 29th place. He missed two six-footers at the end of matches in the Ryder Cup, costing the U.S. a critical point. In December, Mickelson blew the lead on the final nine at the Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa with wild approaches that led to killing bogeys.
On the 1st hole of his final round at La Costa, which he began with a one-stroke lead over Duval, Mickelson looked like a prisoner to the pattern by nervously three-putting from 25 feet. He righted himself with birdies on the 3rd and 4th holes, but what he saw from the 7th tee amounted to a taunt from a particularly obnoxious golf god: "You want pressure, Phil? I got your pressure."
But, in fact, Mickelson would hear none of that. He was instead repeating a mantra created after his recent disappointments. "Seeing Tiger's eagle changed my whole mind-set," said Mickelson. "I've decided that on Sundays I need to focus on one thought: whatever it takes to win." So he pulled out a seven-iron, defied the water hazard to the left of the 188-yard, par-3 hole and rifled a majestic shot directly over the flag to within 10 feet of the cup. Though he missed the putt, something more significant than Woods's eagle had transpired. Mickelson the closer was back.
Although Woods and O'Meara, playing three holes ahead, would each make three more birdies over their final nine for closing 64s, Mickelson kept topping them. When Woods birdied the par-5 12th to take the lead, Mickelson promptly tied him with a birdie on the 9th. Using the same long, rhythmic putting stroke that was so highly thought of earlier in his career but has been criticized of late, Mickelson holed five birdie putts ranging from 30 feet to a foot over the last 10 holes for a closing 68 and a 17-under 271 total, one better than O'Meara's and Woods's.
As an opening act, the Mercedes, which brings together the winners of last year's Tour events, was a smash. A Mickelson-Woods showdown has long been anticipated, and this one had every dramatic element short of a head-to-head stare down. Even on a La Costa course so soggy from rain that the players were allowed to lift, clean and place their balls during the final three rounds, the play was testimony to the Tour's new slogan: "These guys are good."
In addition to winning $306,000, Mickelson stopped Duval, his playing partner on Sunday, from becoming the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four tournaments in a row. Actually, Duval stopped himself when he missed a 2½-foot birdie putt on the 1st hole that would have given him the lead. His closing 73 put him in a tie for sixth, six strokes behind Mickelson.