2006: Phil forgot his major lesson

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If we’ve learned anything about winning major championships over the last decade, it is that a golfer should play safely when leading on the final hole. Let’s make that Rule No. 1 in the preparatory spiral notebook and tear out the page that reads, “If ahead by one stroke and having lost my swing to the

point of hitting wild slices onto garbage bags and hospitality tents, let’s try to hit a big curve around a tree even though I could end up clinically depressed and without a third consecutive major trophy if the damned thread-a-needle trick shot doesn’t come off Paul Hahn right.”

If anyone should know this, it is Phil Mickelson, for he witnessed up close as Payne Stewart and David Toms hit lay-up shots from rough to fairway en route to scrambling pars and one-stroke victories over him in majors.

So we ask, “Did Lefty forget?” I mean, he was right there, wasn’t he, daggered by those safe layups, first by Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999, then by Toms in 2001 in Atlanta. Did the victim not learn the lesson? Did he forget how he won those two Masters and the last PGA, with that sensible, controlled game?

Winged Foot reinforced that if you lead the Open after 71 holes, you emulate Jack Nicklaus, not Harry Houdini. Save the escape-artist act for Wednesday pro-ams. Follow the Nicklaus credo: Put the ball back into play and don’t beat yourself. If we haven’t learned that by now, we never will.

We learned it from the reckless, unlucky Jean Van de Velde, Carnoustie, 1999. We learned this from his demise: Wedge to the fairway. Control your ball, always. Stay away from grandstands, water and hay, unless you’re at a horse show.

We learned prudence from Stewart, same summer. Hack out to the fairway, give yourself a 15-footer to win the Open and go off before your opponent’s baby beeper can.

We learned it from Toms. He is known as the 2001 PGA champion, not the 2001 PGA champion who laid up on the last hole.

We learned it from Tiger Woods. He has won all 10 of his major championships when leading after 54 holes. He did not do so by playing Evel Knievel golf.

We learned it from Nicklaus, the smartest golfer ever. He won 18 majors because he managed his game and let others make mistakes.

The idea here is to win a major, not win with style points, with your chest out. It matters not if the trophy is secured with a gambler’s flair or a conservative’s caution. The task is to win, not impress. Win in whatever way possible. Win like a bore.

Mickelson neglected to heed one of golf’s simple rules, one that applies daily to the 12-handicapper as well as the Masters champion: Take double bogey out of play.

He played his second shot at 18 like he was one shot behind, not one ahead. This was like the team ahead by two in Game 7 of the NBA Finals jacking up a three-point shot with 10 seconds left.

Problem was, Mickelson’s oversliced 3-iron caught nothing but tree. The brain cramp, of course, led to a losing double bogey, the sweetest of gifts for Geoff Ogilvy and Lefty’s accurate, De Vicenzo-like admission, “I am such an idiot.” Mickelson has received much criticism since his blowup but perhaps none harsher than his own “idiot” quote, one that figures to have a decadeslong shelf life.

The Meltdown in Mamaroneck overshadowed wonderful grinder golf in difficult conditions by someone who hit only two fairways. Say what you will about his hitting a driver at No. 18 instead of a 4-wood or long iron, but the blowup was all about the second shot. Bad decision, bad evaluation of risk, bad execution, bad result.

He resorted to Old Phil, the risk-taker who had gone 0-for-46 in majors, not the controlled player who had won three of the last nine.

It’s easier, of course, to evaluate strategy after the fact than inside the hurricane’s epicenter. Making decisions on the last hole of a major championship is not easy.

That’s where a caddie earns his money. If a caddie is ever to speak up and express his conviction and talk sense into his boss, it’s on the last hole of a major. That’s when the looper needs to hand his man a wedge and point to the fairway. That’s when he needs to say, “Over my dead body will you try something stupid.” It’s no time to be a Yes Man.

Van de Velde wedges to the short grass and he owns a jug. But he had a novice caddie who clearly didn’t have the comfort or wisdom to pull wedge and take the rest of the clubs away.

If Mickelson punches out and wedges onto the green, he probably ends up with a par putt inside 20 feet to win outright. At worst he would have been a large favorite in a playoff against Ogilvy the next day. Looper Jim (Bones) Mackay could’ve helped him here with safety-first conviction. Bones, on the bag 14 years, is a close friend of Mickelson. Maybe too close of a friend in that instance and not enough of an arm’s-length professional expressing independent persuasion.

“If he had to do it over again, (Mickelson) probably would’ve done it differently,” said Dave Pelz, his short-game adviser. “But when you’re a great player and things come easily, it’s hard to resist. . . . Yeah, I probably would’ve handed him a wedge (if caddieing). But I probably would’ve done it in the past and been fired by now.”

Pelz figures his guy took the chance because he had just saved par with a punch slice around trees at 17. Mickelson, too, was seduced by the good lie he had after driving off the tent at 18. Thing is, if Mickelson had a poor lie, he would’ve played to the fairway and enhanced his chance of winning.

“I wish it had been a really difficult lie, and his only option was to go to the fairway,” Pelz said. “If he had a bad lie, he probably would’ve won the Open.”

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