2005: PGA Championship - Diamond from the rough

Springfield, N.J.

In the end, it was kid’s play, that’s all. On one of the most brutal, demanding courses in major championship golf, and after not three, but four stressful nights spent sleeping on the lead, Phil Mickelson approached the 72nd green at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course and turned into a kid all over again. The flop shot he faced from heavy rough about 40 feet from the flagstick, was one he’d hit “tens of thousands” of times in his Southern California backyard as a youth. His was a yard that wouldn’t make the Rockefellers blush, but it was big enough for a makeshift putting green and bunker, and soon young Phil would become an apprentice magician with a lob wedge in his hands. That hasn’t changed.

Needing to get up and down to avoid a potential playoff, Mickelson softly sent the shot on its way, the ball landing as if it had bubblegum on its bottom, gently inching its way to tap-in range for birdie.

“Our rough,” smiled 70-year-old Phil Mickelson Sr., “was just about that deep. But it’s a little bit different here, I’m sure.”

He was right. This was different. This time, unlike all those days and nights spent spinning short shots into the sky for fun, the reward was more tangible than a farfetched dream – the 87th PGA Championship was his. Mickelson’s total of 4-under 276 edged Thomas Bjorn and Steve Elkington by a shot and Davis Love III and Tiger Woods by two. A feverish New Jersey/New York crowd that has inexplicably adopted Mickelson as one of its own dating to the days of the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill cheered voraciously, as they had pulled for him all five days.

“Hey Phil,” yelled a voice from the 18th stands, “you’re one of us now.”

And to celebrate, a third-generation Mickelson, Phil’s energetic 2-year-old son, Evan, ran endless circles around the 18th green as officials prepared to wheel the Wanamaker Trophy upon it.

For a while, the PGA seemed a bit of an endless circle itself, one that might never stop. After Mickelson opened with 67-65 to build a three-shot lead over the field through 36 holes, two main questions permeated the thick, humid Jersey air: Can Phil hang on? and Can Tiger catch up?

Only one could be answered in the affirmative, and it was the former. Woods, who got off to poor starts in all four of his rounds but battled back with the fortitude that has led him to 10 major titles, had finished play and was the leader in the clubhouse (2-under 278) when a lightning storm early Sunday evening left a dozen players on the course. Fans who had invested themselves into a wild Sunday were left empty, and the PGA was left with its first Monday finish since champion Bob Tway jumped like a pogo stick in a bunker at Inverness in 1986.

The mercury had hovered around 100 degrees most of the week at Baltusrol – and then, on the coolest day of all, the heat was turned up. A marathon over one of the toughest tests in major championship history turned into a Monday sprint, with a handful of players over a handful of holes still alive in the chase for “Glory’s Last Shot.”

And what do you know? A man who spent the longest time tripping up in the big events, who went a dismal 0-fer in his first 42 majors as a pro before breaking through at the 2004 Masters, was the one to cross the finish line. For Mickelson, it turned a disappointing major season – he virtually went AWOL after a final-round 74 at the Masters – into a year to remember. Just like that.

“We’ve got a long ways between majors,” Mickelson reasoned early in the week.

Any more questions?

“It’s huge,” said Gaylord Sports’ Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime manager and former college coach at Arizona State, standing on the edge of the 18th green as player and his family celebrated. “It validates everything he is. It’s what he plays for. . . . If anybody has any questions about Phil Mickelson, well, this answers them.”

Added coach Rick Smith: “We always knew he could win another one (major). Winning one last year and then this year, it sets a great pattern for you mentally. As you go into majors, your expectation levels are going to go up a little more...It’s the guy who can win in different majors who receives a little bit more credit, and it allows him to be part of history in a different manner.”

Mickelson’s heroics turned back spirited major title bids by Bjorn and Elkington, two guys who have been around the block a time or two. Bjorn, a three-time runner-up at the majors, gave away the 2003 British Open and has been combatting demons that led him to walk off the course during an event last year.

At this year’s British Open, when he stepped to the 18th fairway at St. Andrews – where one could land a large aircraft – and promptly blew his drive out of bounds en route to missing the cut, he knew it was time to change some things. He did, tying the major championship scoring record of 63 (7 under) on Saturday, jumping from an also ran to contender.

Bjorn’s heart was in the right place, but in the end, his ball failed to vanish into the hole at the last, his Monday morning birdie attempt from 35 feet at No. 18 cruelly lipping out to prevent him from reaching 4 under.

“It was on a perfect line, and a foot from the hole, it was going nowhere else but in the hole,” said the Dane. “But what can you do? You can only say that it was not meant to be.”

That also was the case with Elkington, the smooth-swinging 1995 PGA champion who has endured so many maladies he’d make a good study for the New England Journal of Medicine. He owned a two-shot lead on the back nine Sunday, and was playing two groups ahead of Mickelson on Monday, finishing his last three holes tied for the lead, but was hurt by errant drives at Nos. 17 and 18. He recovered with a terrific 3-wood at the latter, setting up a 96-yard shot from a divot to 10 feet, but could not coax his birdie putt to drop.

“There’s no moral victory for coming in second in this major,” he said. “If anybody can tell me who was the runner-up in any major, I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”

Don’t run to the ticket window; his offer is off the table. But Elkington’s steady week (68-70-68-71) proved he’s on the path back to becoming the international force he once was.

Mickelson said he felt a huge relief standing in the 18th fairway after ripping his best drive of the tournament, knowing neither Bjorn nor Elkington had made birdie at 18.

“It would have been a lot harder to have to make birdie to tie than to have the chance to win outright,” Mickelson said. He hammered a 3-wood into the wind from 247 yards that never left the flagstick, but finished a little right, settling into the gnarly greenside rough. Before he walked to the green, he took his club and twice tapped a plaque in the fairway showing where Jack Nicklaus struck a majestic 1-iron to seal the 1967 U.S. Open.

“I just wanted some good karma,” he said.

The early forecast at Baltusrol predicted the 7,392-yard, par-70Lower Course would be little more than a bomber’s paradise, its sheer vigor eliminating a good portion of the field before the first ball ever flew through the air. The early returns proved otherwise; the leaderboard was filled more by guys who hit singles up the middle than those known for hitting it out of the ballpark. By Monday morning, a glance at the board (which read Mickelson, Love, Vijay Singh, Woods and Geoff Ogilvy) revealed that brawn had raised its voice.

“Hard, but fair,” was Woods’ assessment of the setup, and nearly every player echoed the sentiments. “Why can’t all championships be that way? The PGA gets it right...It’s never over the limit.”

A strange week for Woods got off to a truly bizarre start. By the time he made his first birdie at No. 8 on Day 1 – his 17th hole of the day – he’d endured four bogeys, a double and an embedded ball controversy next to a hazard at No. 18 that got more TV review time than the Zapruder film. His drive clipped a tree down the left side and dropped next to a water hazard, and by the time Woods stood over it, it somehow had become embedded.

He asked for relief and didn’t receive it. Media outlets used hazy film to raise the possibility that Woods’ longtime caddie, Steve Williams, had stepped on the ball, and Williams raised the possibility a cameraman might have done it. In the end, all facts gathered were deemed inconclusive – kind of like how the 87th PGA Championship went to bed on Sunday night. Inconclusive.

Even before his opening 75, Woods should have known it might not be his week. When he whirred into the Baltusrol parking lot Monday before the tournament, a beat-up Honda was parked in his reserved spot. What did Woods do? He parked in Jack Nicklaus’ spot.

But taking up permanent residence in that spot, we’re finding out, is going to take a little time. Woods’ chase for his third major title of 2005 and 11th overall included a run down an interesting side street. That is, for the third time in five years at the PGA, he was dangerously close to finding himself tripped up by the cut line. Woods was 7 over for the tournament through 22 holes, then got untracked, making 10 birdies in his next 29 holes. He came to his 36th hole needing birdie to finish at 4-over 144 in order to make the cut and, well, there’s little mystery as to how that turned out.

Not that Woods received a lot of sympathy for his troubles.

“If you’re looking for me to shed a tear,” Mickelson said Friday, “it’s not going to happen.”

Mickelson threatened to run away and hide Friday, leading by four shots for most of the day until a final-hole birdie by Jerry Kelly made it three. But Saturday he played like a man walking across chards of glass, tiptoeing his way across the mighty layout, making only one birdie to combat three bogeys, and generally leaving a lot of players still in the picture – namely, one T. Woods.

Sunday wasn’t much different, though Baltusrol was getting more rugged. Searing heat finally left its ballmark on the golf course, making fairways firm and fast, and the usually kinder, gentler PGA of America moved a few holes closer to the edges of greens, turning up the degree of difficulty a few notches.

The final group contained two men long on major potential: Mickelson and Love. By all means, both have had exemplary careers, winning 44 PGA Tour events (now 45) between them and playing for enough Ryder and Presidents cups to fill several cupboards. But they’ve been woefully short in the major championship arena. Mickelson’s triumph at the Masters in 2004 knocked a huge gorilla off his shoulder. When Mickelson won, Love knew the feeling of relief. He, too, had been the all-everything, can’t-miss star who hadn’t captured a major until he landed the PGA at Winged Foot eight years ago.

Many thought that victory might lead to more majors for Love, but it hasn’t happened. And so both entered the final 18 holes with an opportunity to collect a second major too good to pass on. One made sure to grab the ring.

“One major puts you in the club, but it’s just ‘in the club,’ ” said Love, who closed with 74 after shooting three 68s. “Four or five of them put you in superstar status.”

Mickelson’s game and his numbers for the week were nothing spectacular. He closed 72-72. He made the decision to play a hard cut shot the entire week, trying to keep his controlled drives from running into Baltusrol’s dense and penal rough. He honed the plan at the previous week’s International, and never deviated from the blueprint.

When things got headed south, he wasn’t the Mickelson we had often seen in the past, who could vanish from a leaderboard in an instant. He fought back, righting the ship. Asked the best part of Mickelson’s game over the entire week, his longtime caddie and close friend, Jim “Bones” Mackay, answered instantly.

“Guts,” he said. “He showed a lot of heart.”

Now Mickelson has two majors, and he could really soar from here.

“He’s not a one-major guy,” said Bjorn. “He’s a 10-major guy.”

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