2001: Perspective - Mickelson will earn his Phil of majors

Over and over, we ask the question: What’s wrong with Phil?

One stroke back entering the last round of the 2001 Masters, Phil Mickelson shoots 70 and loses by three. Two strokes back entering the last round of the 2001 U.S. Open, he shoots 75 and loses by six.

Mickelson has a special relationship with major championships. Always in contention, always loses. In his nine-year professional career, he has smelled more major flowers than a horticulturist at Augusta National. Always smells, never picks.

We are sick of asking, he is sick of answering, but we continue to pose the most ridiculous questions. We push, we tug, we try to manipulate him into that dark, insecure place in which his defenses are down.

We want him to say: “It’s the worst day of my life. I’m a failure. I’m a choke artist.”

Instead he answers patiently. He tries to analyze what he must do, what he must change. He is bravely articulate and forthright.

We interview his wife, Amy: “What’s wrong with Phil?” She tries as valiantly as he to provide some insight.

We probably would interview his 2-year-old daughter, Amanda, if only she could talk golf. “What’s wrong with Phil?” we would ask. She probably would say something like, “There is nothing wrong with my dad.”

She would be right. Nothing is wrong with Phil. He just hasn’t won a major yet.

It’s time to leave the guy alone. He and his family have never ducked our inane questions. They have stood there obediently like soldiers and tried to answer every one.

We have heard the rumor that life is more than golf, and here is a golfer who is the personification of that ideal. So how do we reward him? We stick a label on his forehead: Best Player Never To Win A Major.

Mickelson, who won the Greater Hartford Open July 1 for his 19th Tour title, should win several majors. Give him time.

On June 16, Mickelson turned 31. For the record, Sam Snead didn’t win his first major until he was 31. Ben Hogan didn’t win his first major until he was 34.

Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods notwithstanding, the evidence is overwhelming that golfers don’t hit their prime in the majors until their 30s. Greg Norman won his first major at 31, Payne Stewart, Fred Couples and Steve Elkington at 32, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger and Davis Love III at 33, Mark Brooks at 35, Corey Pavin at 35, Steve Jones and Tom Lehman at 37.

This is not a new trend. In 1941, Craig Wood was 39 when he won the Masters and the U.S. Open two months later. Bobby Locke was 31 when he captured the first of four British Open crowns in 1949. Jackie Burke was 33 when he claimed both the Masters and PGA Championship in 1956.

There was a nine-year period in the U.S. Open, from 1950 through 1958, in which the youngest champion was 32-year-old Julius Boros. Two of the winners, Ben Hogan in 1953 and Tommy Bolt in 1958, were in their 40s.

Retief Goosen, the 2001 U.S. Open winner, fits the pattern. He is 32. Looking at the last 25 winners of the U.S. Open, five were in their 40s, six in their 20s, and 14 in their 30s. Despite the fact that Ernie Els and Tiger Woods each won the U.S. Open at 24, the average age of the last 25 champions was 33.56.

So please don’t tell me that Mickelson has squandered his best opportunities. There will be plenty more. Nick Faldo, who has six major championships, didn’t win his first until he was 30. Nick Price, with three majors, didn’t break through until he was 35.

Sure, Mickelson has lost often. But he has done it with dignity, and I’m betting he has benefited from this experience in his life and his golf. People mature at different ages. So do golfers.

We should not judge Mickelson by the Tiger Woods measuring stick. This is unfair. Let Phil be Phil.

Earlier this year, I played a round of golf with his father, Phil Mickelson Sr. On the first hole, a short par 5, he short-sided himself with his second shot.

What kind of shot would he play? I couldn’t wait to find out. The other two members of the group – Frank Paul, president of Golfsmith, and Chuck Yash, then with Callaway Golf – were just as curious.

Phil Sr. took this gigantic swing. The ball went straight up in the air. It reminded me of a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.

When the ball came down, it was covered with stratospheric glue. It stuck to the putting surface. Tap-in birdie. We were rolling on the turf with laughter.

I am guessing that young Phil learned more than wedge shots from his father. I am guessing he absorbed the stuff that major champions are made of.

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