2004: PGA - Ray of Hope

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LA QUINTA, CALIF.

There are players who had breakout, robust seasons on the PGA Tour in 2003. And then there was Phil Mickelson’s 2003.

He cannot put his dismal year behind him soon enough.

So when Mickelson showed up at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic to start anew, his focus was on the road ahead, not the bumpy one just traveled. He showed up fitter and refreshed, with a long game tuned up in the off-season by Rick Smith and a short game from 130 yards in sharpened by Dave Pelz. He had his old Titleist Futura putter in the bag, and appeared armed with his old confidence, too.

Winless for 18 months, Mickelson played his way into contention on the weekend, and once there, it was if he’d never left. He birdied his 90th hole to force a playoff with Skip Kendall at 30 under par (330), then birdied the same hole (No. 18 at PGA West’s Palmer Course) moments later with a deft pitch to 3 feet to seal his 22nd PGA Tour triumph.

“Not having been there last year,” said Mickelson, who earned $810,000 for his victory, “I realize how much I missed it.”

Kendall, who shot 64 on the final day, was left still looking for his first Tour victory after 294 starts. He was runner-up for the fourth time in his career, and now has lost three playoffs.

“It hurts,” said Kendall, 39, who surrendered the lead with a costly bogey at the short, par-3 17th hole Sunday. “I played my heart out. It’s hard to take, but I’m glad I was there. People sometimes ask me, ‘Well, what’s been your highlight in golf?’ I say, ‘Stay tuned.’”

Even though he’s already accomplished a great deal in the game, Mickelson’s storyline might be similar, potentially with bigger things in store this season. At the Hope, an event where a player needs a birdie every three holes to contend, Mickelson, who shoulders a reputation of being overaggressive at times, seemed to know just when to throttle up and throttle down.

Standing in the fairway 225 yards away from the pin at the par-5 18th with a 4-iron in his hands at the end of regulation, trailing by a shot, Mickelson was content to play for birdie and a playoff, rather than gun at a back pin in search of an eagle that could close the deal.

With water guarding the left side of the green, Mickelson smartly missed the green to the right, then chipped to inches for birdie. When Kendall pulled his second shot into the rough left of the green in the playoff, Mickelson hit his second shot nearly to the same spot where he’d stood minutes earlier, and once again relied on his superb wedge game to produce a winning birdie.

Fifty-year-old Jay Haas, who contended on Sunday at the Hope for a third consecutive year, closed with 67 to miss the playoff by one stroke. Jonathan Kaye (64–332) finished fourth. Kirk Triplett, who did not make a single bogey in his first four rounds, battled with Mickelson for the lead early Sunday before putting woes and a back-nine 41 derailed him from the race. He tied for ninth.

Mickelson, 33, is coming off a winless season for the first time since 1999. In 23 starts in 2003, his highest finish was a third at the Masters. In a candid moment a day before the Hope began, Mickelson revealed that poor golf fell well down his list of priorities in the last 10 months.

Mickelson said his wife, Amy, survived a life-threatening emergency shortly after giving birth to the couple’s third child, son Evan Samuel, last March. Evan, whose health today is 100 percent, did not breathe for seven minutes when he was born before equipment revived him; Evan’s mother also was in grave danger. She had a 6-inch tear in an artery supplying nutrients to her uterus, and went through five units of blood before an emergency procedure stopped the bleeding. Mickelson said he was minutes away from losing his wife.

“It was just a hard year all around,” he said, “not to mention the fact I was experimenting around with some mechanical things in my golf swing that turned not to pan out. . . . I’m very much looking forward to 2004. I expect a lot of great things.”

Mickelson realizes he enters this season with a lot of questions surrounding his play. His answer at the Hope seemed ahead of schedule, even somewhat surprising to him. The last time he came off a winless season, in 2000, he won four times.

“I’ve heard a lot of people question my heart, question my motivation,” he said. “I think that I still have the same heart, the same desire, the same motivation that has led to 21 (now 22) Tour wins, and I expect to carry through this year, too.”

Lefty certainly started on the right foot. Stay tuned.

– Staff and wire reports

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