Mickelson’s presence among the list of early season PGA TOUR winners is most welcome, coming as it does one week after Tiger Woods’s 4-stroke victory at the Farmers Insurance Open and a month after Dustin Johnson’s at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
That’s quite a bit of established star power in the winner’s circle this early in the year. Although there’s still too much snow on the ground and in the forecasts to start talking about trends going into the Masters, it’s not too early to discuss the potential for some entertaining possibilities in the near-term.
Let’s start with this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where Mickelson is the defending champion. Unlike the wire-to-wire masterpiece he painted against the desert sky last week at TPC Scottsdale, Mickelson came from six strokes off the pace last year at Pebble, blowing past Woods and 54-hole leader Charlie Wi with a closing 64.
That gets to the core of Mickelson’s appeal on the golf course. His game is explosive, unpredictable, prone to bursts of exquisite artistry and blips of inexplicable blunder. Whether he’s leading or chasing, there’s always the hint of danger, like the 3-wood tee shot at the 17th hole on Sunday that came within a yard of the water. This captivates fans for some of the same reasons throngs watch someone tightrope across Niagara Falls. The Golf Channel commentator and former tour pro Frank Nobilo joked that “Phil must have been born on a roller-coaster.”
Then there’s the way Mickleson handles himself after he either pulls off some high-risk shot or watches it fall in the water – with a head shake and a smile, maybe a thumb’s up, reminiscent of the great Arnold Palmer. When a discussion comparing Mickelson’s fan appeal with Palmer’s arose on NBC during Sunday’s final-round broadcast, commentator Peter Jacobsen summarized it neatly.
“Phil picked up where Arnie left off,” said Jacobsen, who played with both men during his PGA TOUR prime. Only Mickelson, who is 42, knows how much longer he’ll carry the King’s mantle, but his 41st victory was a convincing statement that he still has plenty of game left after 21 years (and counting) on TOUR. Lest we forget, the guy actually had a putt for a round of 59 horsehoe back at him last Saturday.
All this raises the possibility of a renewed head-to-head with the rejuvenated Woods, who is 37, and who did something two weeks ago that he hadn’t done since 2008 – win in his first PGA TOUR start of the year. Although Woods’s victory at the Farmers might have seemed somewhat routine – being that it was his seventh in the event at Torrey Pines Golf Course – it has significance well beyond coincidence.
When Woods has opened his TOUR season with a win at Torrey Pines, it has often presaged a big year. In five of those seven years, he also won a major championship and in two of them he won two majors. The last of his 14 major championships, the U.S. Open, also occurred in 2008.
Something that actually might be a coincidence, but which is too valuable as a transition not to note, is that Mickelson’s wire-to-wire victory is the first on TOUR since Rory McIlroy went start to finish at the 2010 U.S. Open at Congressional.
Insinuating McIlroy, in his 26th week at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, into the discussion at this point is germane in more ways than one. He just finished the second week of a month-long break from competition, and though he retains a comfortable lead at the top over Woods, there has been some movement in the top 10.
Mickelson moved in at No. 10 from No. 22 with his victory. Snedeker, who did his best to shake the lead out of Mickelson’s grasp with a closing 64, moved up a spot to No. 6. Who knows what might happen in the next couple weeks, while McIlroy continues to get comfortable with his new golf clubs before making his first 2013 U.S. appearance, probably at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship? Mickelson showed he is already used to his new driver, of which he said, “The fact that this club is so easy to hit now, I think it's going to change the rest of the year for me. I really do.”
Not to say Phil won’t still be found, on occasion, amongst his fans on the other side of the ropes. After all, that’s part of the whole deal. But it does mean he’ll be in the fairways more often, which could very well make him even more dangerous – if that’s possible.