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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Majors elude Mickelson, Montgomerie

It’s too soon to dismiss their chances, but clock ticking

July 4, 2001

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Impressive victories on their respective sides of the Atlantic showed that Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie are still capable of winning on any given week as long as that given week doesn't include a major.

The timing of Mickelson's victory at the Greater Hartford Open provided more fodder for those who think he only thrives away from the suffocating pressure of a major championship.

It was his fourth victory in a tournament sandwiched around a major.

Mickelson won the BellSouth Classic the week before last year's Masters, then got blown away in the third round at Augusta and wound up eight strokes behind. The other two victories were his first tournament after a major the '93 International, and the '98 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which was completed in August the day after the PGA Championship.

Timing, indeed, is everything.

But to declare that Mickelson will never win a major is premature. He only seems older than 31 because success came so early in his career.

And to question Mickelson's ability under the gun is to forget recent history.

The Tour Championship is far from a major, but the stakes were high at East Lake last November. Mickelson was faced with trying to track down Tiger Woods in the final round, something no one had done over a span of four years and 19 tournaments.

He did just that, closing with a 66 for a two-stroke victory.

Earlier that year, the Buick Invitational in San Diego contained as much electricity as some majors because Woods was going for his seventh straight PGA Tour victory. The pressure really picked up when Woods made up seven strokes in seven holes to tie Mickelson for the lead with five holes to play.

How did Mickelson respond? With back-to-back birdies, winning by four strokes.

True, he hasn't proven anything in the majors.

The U.S. Open at Southern Hills was the sixth major in which Mickelson was within two strokes of the lead going into the final round. Those should not be considered outright failures, not in the same vein as a Greg Norman.

Mickelson was never in the lead after 54 holes. In three U.S. Open chances, he needed a final-round score under par, which is no small task. In three Masters opportunities, he would have required at least 66 to win.

As long as he keeps giving himself chances, Lefty will get it right.

Fred Couples, Payne Stewart, Ben Crenshaw, Vijay Singh and Nick Price were all older than Mickelson when they won their first major. Only in the amazing era of Woods are players considered washed up before reaching their prime.

The question facing Montgomerie is whether he already is past his prime.

The 38-year-old Scot went 56 weeks without winning on the European tour, a circuit he ruled for seven straight years. His personal life had been in turmoil, his confidence at an all-time low. That's what made winning the Irish Open so special.

"I've had an awful good look at myself in the last eight months and I am a better person now," he said. "I feel I can go forward."

The next step remains winning a major championship.

Montgomerie has gone 16 consecutive majors without being in serious contention. His best years are behind him, although the task is not impossible. Only three years ago, Mark O'Meara won his first major at 41 in the Masters, then won the British Open to become the oldest player to win two majors in one season.

Montgomerie is Europe's version of Tom Kite a top player year after year. Kite won his first major, the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, when he was 42.

Still, history is not on Monty's side.

Dating to 1934 when the Masters came aboard, only 10 players have won their first major when they were 38 or older. Clearly, time is running out on Montgomerie.

But not on Mickelson. And not on 29-year-old David Duval, the other player in the dreadful "best to have never won a major" category.

No doubt, having Woods around leaves fewer chances to win a major. Still, 31 is hardly the age to write someone off.

Who's next Sergio Garcia?

Success also came early to the young Spaniard. He took Woods to the wire in the '99 PGA Championship and became the youngest player in Ryder Cup history, going 3-1-1.

A year later, he was asked during the U.S. Open whether he was starting to feel pressure to win his first major.

Garcia stared back in disbelief.

"I'm 20 years old," he said. "I'm going to play a lot of majors, and hopefully I'll be lucky enough to win some of them. I don't know when it's going to come."

According to today's expectations, it won't come soon enough.

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