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Archive for Saturday, August 18, 2007

Phil’s lost summer

August 18, 2007

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Phil Mickelson blasts out of the rough last week at the PGA Championship. After a spring victory at the Players Championship, Mickelson's season took a turn for the worse. He shot over par in all four majors.

Phil Mickelson blasts out of the rough last week at the PGA Championship. After a spring victory at the Players Championship, Mickelson's season took a turn for the worse. He shot over par in all four majors.

— Beneath a blistering sun and surrounded by cheers, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson climbed the steep hill together toward the clubhouse at Southern Hills.

They were separated by some 30 yards. And they could not have been farther apart.

This was Saturday at the PGA Championship, the final major of the year. Mickelson was on the 18th green, finishing another round over par that left him in the middle of the pack. Woods was making the turn on the adjacent ninth green, on his way to winning another major.

The scene spoke volumes of their divergent seasons.

Only three months earlier, Mickelson was walking up another hill toward the sprawling clubhouse of the TPC Sawgrass, his arm draped around the shoulder of swing coach Butch Harmon after a victory at The Players Championship.

It set the stage for what figured to be another run at the world's No. 1 player.

What followed was Lefty's lost summer.

"My performance in the majors has been disappointing," Mickelson said as he sat in front of his locker, a tinge of gray hair starting to show around the ears. He is 37, still in his prime, but an age when lost years are tougher to get back.

An injury to his left wrist at the end of May caused him to withdraw in the middle of one tournament, pull out of two other tournaments and was a big reason why he missed the cut in three tournaments.

Some of the lowlights:

l He finished over par in all four majors for the first time.

l He failed to record a top 10 in the majors for only the second time.

l Since turning pro in 1992, Mickelson had missed five cuts in the majors. This year he missed the cut in two.

Most of this was out of his hands, if not his wrist.

He says the injury stemmed from one of his marathon practice sessions for a major, chipping constantly out of the thick grass at Oakmont a week before the U.S. Open. Whatever the case, he couldn't play as much as he wanted or practice how he wanted.

Those close to Mickelson said he could not swing without pain until a week ago. He is starting to hit balls without wincing, but what makes him shudder is the calendar. This is the time of the year when Lefty goes into hibernation.

Instead, he plans to play four straight weeks during the FedEx Cup playoffs, the Presidents Cup, and then two weeks off before an unusually busy schedule in the fall.

Mickelson said he would play the Fry's Electronics Open at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he remains a member. Even rarer is a two-week trip to Asia in early November for the Singapore Open and the HSBC Champions in China.

The majors are over.

Mickelson is just now starting to get his hands dirty.

He is working on some new equipment from Callaway, and he feels as though he can finally resume work with Harmon that began at the end of April.

"Rather than shutting it down, I want to practice and I want to be in competition," Mickelson said. "I want to continue to work with Butch and develop the long game. I've been prohibited from doing that the last 10 weeks."

The year has not been a total loss. Mickelson looked as good as ever when he won by five shots at Pebble Beach, and he nearly made it two in a row at Riviera until a poor chip on the 72nd hole dropped him into a playoff won by Charles Howell III.

And he does not take The Players Championship lightly.

"Winning the Players is the next best tournament to win, so that salvages the year," he said. "And I'm excited about the FedEx Cup, which I didn't expect to be."

Mickelson finished the regular season more than 14,000 points behind Woods. But when the playoffs begin next week in New York, most likely without Woods, the points will be reset and Mickelson will be only 2,000 points back as the No. 4 seed.

"If I play well, I have a good chance of being the inaugural champion," Mickelson said.

Would that also salvage his year?

Probably, although even Mickelson is still trying to grasp the significance of the FedEx Cup.

"When Horton Smith won the first, he had no idea what the allure of the Masters would become," Mickelson said. "And there's a good chance the FedEx Cup will one day have that same allure. There's also a chance that in four years from now, it will be a flop. I don't know."

Given his year, there's no telling how he will fare the next four weeks. Mickelson points to a season that includes two victories and two playoff losses (Nissan Open, Scottish Open), along with three missed cuts.

"There has been no middle of the road for me this year," he said.

Mickelson finished his year in the majors with 16 consecutive pars, a string broken with his birdie on the 17th hole that gave him a 69 and a tie for 32nd in the PGA Championship.

So ended a streak of three straight years winning a major, which sets him apart from the other top challengers to Woods' domain. Ernie Els also has three majors, none since 2002. Vijay Singh won his third major in 2004 and hasn't sniffed one since.

Woods has competition, but seemingly no serious threat.

For Mickelson, the next four months might determine whether he can be one again.

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