2004: Mickelson has maturity to thank

Augusta, Ga.

I am the best player never to win a major. Now that Phil Mickelson and Grace Park have won their majors, I am first in line. I submitted my application a long time ago.

I hesitate to sound so confident, but a marvelous Masters will do that to you. I, along with tens of thousands of Masters spectators, was swept away by Phil Fever. The ground seemed to shake with the magnitude of his victory. The deafening applause reverberated so loudly through the trees, I half expected the birds to throw themselves at Mickelson’s feet.

It was that kind of day. The most popular player in golf won the Masters, and the world of golf went crazy.

So the Big Lefty beat the Big Easy in a monumental showdown. It was Mr. Emotion against Mr. Emotionless, and the smiley guy won.

Those of us who have doubted Mickelson owe him a huge mea culpa. He was hard-nosed, gritty, resilient and relentless under pressure. He was brilliant.

Dear Phil: I hope there is no antidote for Phil Fever, because it feels pretty good here in the permanent home of major championship golf. Even after one of those tire-tummied cops tossed me out of the Augusta National clubhouse area for writing notes (I suppose I was plotting mass distraction), I still felt the bug circulating through my veins.

Perhaps there have been major championships with this much drama, but I can’t remember them. Part of the explanation lies in the intimate involvement of the spectators, who seem to hover over the Masters gladiators like Romans in the Coliseum. And part of the explanation lies in the link between Phil and his fans.

I tell you, it’s that unshakable virus: Phil Fever.

Spare me, please, all the conversation about Mickelson’s new attitude and his new patience and his new hit-it-in-the-fairway game. Any village idiot can tell us that golf is more easily played from the fairway than the trees. Duh.

At this point, I will advance a revolutionary theory that seems to have eluded many golf watchers: He won because he finally grew up; he won because he finally acquired the one shot that didn’t exist in his repertoire. It’s called maturity.

Golf is the best game on earth, and herein is Exhibit A: Phil Mickelson.

Golfers generally don’t reach competitive maturity until their 30s. Mickelson is 33. Now that he has won his first major, he should be hell on spikes for the next 10 years or so. Look for him to collect majors as some of us collect denim jeans.

Golf is the game of a lifetime. In the playing of this game, maturity pays huge dividends. Although our physical skills may diminish as we get older, our mental skills should grow.

Jack Nicklaus won 11 of his 18 professional majors after he turned 30. His last came at age 46.

Ben Hogan didn’t win a single major championship before age 33. He turned 41 in 1953, the year he entered three majors and won them all.

Mark O’Meara was 41 when he finally won two majors. Both Vijay Singh and Nick Price were 35 when they broke through with their first majors. Jim Furyk was 33 when he captured last year’s U.S. Open, his first major title. Nick Faldo was 30 when he took the first of six majors.

The next test for Mickelson will be to join the two-major club. Let’s be totally honest: Winning one major is not the big deal that many people make it out to be.

Winning two majors is the trick, and winning two different majors elevates a player to the pantheon of professional golf. This is why his British Open victory in 2002 was so important to Ernie Els, who already had won two U.S. Opens.

How many golfers under 50 years of age have won at least two different majors? Not counting those who have simply won the same major twice, it’s a short list – Els, O’Meara, Singh, Price, Faldo, Tiger Woods, John Daly, Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle.

I would never try to minimize the major victories of Furyk, Mike Weir, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel in 2003, but the real question is: Can they win another? It’s called validation.

Golf history is filled with one-hit wonders. Most of these one-time major champions are solid players who had long careers and made a lot of money. But the magic never repeated itself.

I have a vision of 1993 PGA champion Paul Azinger kicking himself in the middle of the night, saying, “Ahhh, that 1987 British Open.”

Played at Muirfield, it was Azinger’s to win or lose, and ultimately he bogeyed the last hole and lost to Faldo.

Speaking of validation, Mickelson clearly cemented what had been a disputed reputation as one of golf’s best putters. He won the Masters with clutch putting.

Here’s a lesson that everyday golfers can learn from Mickelson: Leading to the Masters, he switched from a face-balanced Titleist Futura to a toe-down Titleist blade prototype from Scotty Cameron (meaning that if you balance the putter shaft on one finger, the toe will point down).

Why the switch? Because he was blocking some putts with the face-balanced putter. The toe weight of the blade putter allows the face to close more easily, and Mickelson said he was once again hitting all his putts where he was aiming them.

Don’t be surprised to see him switch back to the Futura in the future, because anybody’s putting stroke will fluctuate over time. When he starts pulling putts with the blade, he will go back to the face-balanced model.

Mickelson is a nice guy, and sometimes nice guys finish first. More than that, though, mature guys finish first. Now Mickelson should do it again. And again.

I, the best player never to win a major, had one of those live-action dreams the night of Mickelson’s Masters triumph: Phil wins the 2004 Grand Slam and earns a tacky ticker-tape parade, along with his wife, Amy, and their 14 children (well, my dream was slightly inaccurate).

Drifting in and out of sleep, I also had a thought about the golf lexicon: Anybody who birdies the last hole to win a tournament, or even a $2 bet, should henceforth be deemed to have made a Phil.

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