Phil a phenom in Phoenix
Mickelson was a fan favorite 20 years ago in a duel in the desert
February 02, 2016
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim Mackay, stood on the tee box at TPC Scottsdale’s 17th hole, anxious to continue their sudden-death playoff against Justin Leonard. But the action was on hold.
“We had to stand there for 2 or 3 minutes because there were so many people trying to follow the group that it kicked up this huge cloud of dust,” Mackay recalled recently. “It was like a fog delay. We had to wait for the dust to settle before they could tee off.”
Mickelson’s attempt to win in the shadow of his alma mater – Arizona State in nearby Tempe -- was just one reason why record crowds were at TPC Scottsdale 20 years ago. The Super Bowl was being held in the Grand Canyon State for the first time, and so Phoenix’s PGA TOUR stop ended a day early to avoid conflicting with the big game at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium. Many football fans, seeking a diversion the day before the Cowboys and Steelers played, were among the estimated 156,875 who attended the final round. They were added to the tournament’s typically rowdy fans.
“There have been tournaments kind of with crowds like that, but I think when you have football fans out there as well, it was incredible,” Amy Mickelson said.
They saw Mickelson and Leonard, two 20-somethings with strong resumes, in the final group. Their back-and-forth duel over TPC Scottsdale's back nine left them tied at the end of regulation at 15 under par.
The extra holes pushed the tournament into SportsCenter’s airtime, giving increased exposure to the drama. Those who tuned in for more of the endless analysis that precedes every Super Bowl also were treated to what the New York Times called “one of the most thrilling sudden-death playoffs in years.”
Mickelson’s short game, as it often does, saved the day multiple times before he won with a birdie on the third extra hole. He has since won two more times at TPC Scottsdale (2005, 2013), and arrives at this year’s event after making offseason swing changes with Scottsdale-based swing coach Andrew Getson. Mickelson started the year with a third-place finish at the CareerBuilder Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation before missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Mickelson’s first Phoenix win was long enough ago that his celebratory kiss came from his fiancée, Amy McBride; they were married later that year. Mickelson used graphite-shafted irons in the victory, while Leonard was still using persimmon woods. Hootie and the Blowfish headlined a concert at TPC Scottsdale after the final round.
The day after the tournament, a charity pro-am featuring NFL stars and PGA TOUR players was held at TPC Scottsdale and televised on ESPN. Participants were transported to and from the Super Bowl in style. The course's ninth hole doubled as a helipad, with a handful of the helicopters landing at a time.
“The gentleman from McDonnell-Douglas told me that it was the second-busiest airport in Phoenix for about 90 minutes,” said Ed Grant, the tournament’s chairman that year. “It definitely took the Phoenix Open up another notch. It gets bigger and bigger each year.”
The showdown between Mickelson, 25, and Leonard, 23, was a tussle between two of the game’s young talents. Both had won the U.S. Amateur and NCAA individual titles during their amateur days and were now establishing themselves on the PGA TOUR.
Mickelson, who turned pro at the 1992 U.S. Open, had already won six times before the 1996 Phoenix Open, including victories in his birthplace, San Diego, and adopted home state of Arizona. He'd won the Tucson Open three times, including victories in 1991 as an amateur and two weeks before the 1996 Phoenix Open. Mickelson, who lived in nearby Paradise Valley, had yet to win the Phoenix Open, though.
|PHIL'S PHENOMENAL STRETCH IN EARLY 1996|
|Nortel Open||Tucson, Ariz.||Win||Jan. 14, 1996|
|Phoenix Open||Phoenix, Ariz.||Win||Jan. 27, 1996|
|Buick Invitational||San Diego, Calif.||Second||Feb. 11, 1996|
Leonard had qualified for the 1995 TOUR Championship in his first full season as a pro, and would win the following year’s Open Championship and the 1998 THE PLAYERS.
“Tiger didn’t come on the scene until the fall of 1996, so Phil was, along with Greg Norman and maybe a couple of other guys, the real name players in the game at the time,” said Gary Koch, who called the 1996 Phoenix Open from the 18th tower. “And, of course, with his ASU connections, the crowd was very, very pro-Mickelson. It was painfully obvious who 99.999 percent of the people were pulling for.”
Leonard compared the atmosphere to the Ryder Cup and he was definitely the visiting team. Facing that hostile environment helped him later in his career.
Phil Mickelson knocks it close on No. 16 at the 1996 Phoenix Open
“It certainly toughened me up a little bit,” said Leonard, who holed one of the most memorable putts in Ryder Cup history in the United States' comeback in 1999.
Grant Waite remembers warming up next to Mickelson before the final round in Phoenix. Waite was teeing off on No. 10, not No. 1, though. He shot a course-record 60, barely missing a chip for birdie on 8 and a 15-foot birdie putt at his last hole. While chasing 59, he could follow the leaders based on the cheers coming from the back nine. It was exciting enough that, instead of leaving the course after his round was over, Waite stayed in the clubhouse to watch the finish on television.
“(TPC Scottsdale) is an exposed golf course, so the sound travels pretty well,” Waite said. “So when Phil and Justin were making a lot of birdies and going back and forth, there was a lot of atmosphere there. There were a lot of A-S-U chants. You could hear that going around the golf course. It was a big deal for Phil and Phoenix, and it should be.
“It was interesting to watch and I didn’t want to miss it.”
Leonard started the final round with a two-shot lead over three players, including Mickelson. Mickelson, who’d missed putts inside 5 feet on 12 and 14, was still two behind when they arrived at the par-5 15th.
Mickelson's length gave him the advantage on the island-green par-5, but both players hit their second shots into a bunker left of the green.
|Phil's driving distance||1996||1998||2000||2002||2004||2006||2008||2010||2012||2014||2016|
He thought he’d let the tournament slip away by not giving himself an eagle opportunity. “As I was walking up 15, was very low on energy and the people there, because of how rowdy that area is, really got me boosted,” he said after the round. Mickelson holed a 12-foot birdie putt, while Leonard missed from 7 feet.
Mickelson made another birdie at the famed par-3 16th, hitting his tee shot to 3 feet. He had trouble fading the ball that week, so he had to play a draw to the back-left flag.
“It was a weird week for Phil because he was playing well, but he couldn’t hit a cut shot, so he was hitting draws only,” Mackay said. “We get to the 16th hole back before the ball goes as far as it does now. The hole played a lot tougher then. Because he wasn’t cutting the ball, he had to hit a draw out over the crowd. When the pin is five (paces) from the left and you have to aim left of a green that’s elevated, that’s no fun. But that’s what he had that week, and that’s the shot that he hit.”
Leonard’s tee shot ran by the hole but rolled over the green and down the hill, leading to a bogey. It was a miscue that allowed ESPN announcer Jim Kelly to get creative. “With that ovation and that shot, Justin Leonard must feel like the whole world is a tuxedo and he’s a pair of brown shoes,” Kelly said on the telecast.
The two-shot swing put Mickelson one shot ahead. The drama was hardly done, though. Mickelson hit what he called a “pathetic” tee shot into the water at the drivable 17th. The next shot was the sort of flop shot with audacious airtime that Mickelson hit more often in his earlier days. He swung past parallel on the 40-yard shot, and the ball’s vertical landing allowed it to stop quickly.
“I seem to remember at the time saying, ‘This is the risky shot. This is not the shot that most people would play, but that’s not the way Phil plays, at least from what we can tell so far,’ ” Koch said. “Sure enough, that’s the way he’s played his entire career.”
Phil Mickelson's short game magic at the 1996 Phoenix Open
He saved par, but Leonard made birdie to pull even.
Mickelson also missed the green at 18, his ball coming to rest on a downhill lie with the flag tucked in the back. Grant, the tournament chairman, thought the Thunderbirds may be denied their hometown champion. He said he started walking to the green to congratulate Leonard, thinking Mickelson wouldn’t be able to save par. He did, sending the tournament to sudden death.
Both players made birdie on the first playoff hole, the 18th. Leonard hit his approach shot to 3 feet, and Mickelson followed by hitting his to 5 feet.
Mickelson hit his approach shot in a bunker at the second hole, the par-4 10th, but holed a 15-foot par putt to extend the playoff. He won on the next hole, No. 17, holing a short birdie putt for the win after Leonard missed a 6-footer.
“I just can’t believe this is happening,” Mickelson said after making the putt. “This is the tournament I wanted to win the most. It was a lot of fun.”
Phil Mickelson wins the 1996 Phoenix Open