CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Disney has Space Mountain, Universal The Incredible Hulk, Six Flags the Kingda Ka.
But golf can match ‘em all for thrills, chills, dips, and whips. It has Phil Mickelson.
The inimitable lefthander, playing in his 393rd PGA Tour event in this his 18th season, demonstrated yet again why he is the most exciting ride in pro golf. If you look at the number beside his signature – a 1-under 71 – you might conclude that it was a ho-hum pedestrian day at the Quail Hollow Championship for Mickelson, but you couldn’t be more wrong if you were to suggest that they embrace the Hurricanes more than the Tar Heels down here.
Don’t bother with the linescore – four birdies, one bogey, one double – because it doesn’t do Mickelson’s performance justice. Even the lefthander sheepishly conceded as much.
One day before, Mickelson had been swept onto the course in the wake of Tiger Woods’s morning 65, but it hardly shook the lefthander. He responded with a bogey-free 67 in the afternoon that included an eagle and very few mistakes.
When he birdied his fifth and sixth (14 and 15) in today’s second round, Mickelson was 7-under and locked atop the leaderboard with Woods. Visions of blitzing past his arch-rival, who wouldn’t play until the afternoon, may have entered the picture – at least until his game left the stage at various points.
Take the putting hiccup at the watery par-3 17th.
“It can happen,” Mickelson said, recalling how his 42-foot putt for birdie came up 6 feet short. He then jammed that 6 feet past the hole and missed the comebacker, the definitive ugly, four-putt double-bogey if ever there was one.
Nerve-wracking stuff, but no worries. This is Mickelson, a man with few peers when it comes to doing things his own way. Let’s not forget, he won the Masters carrying two different drivers and then tried to capture the U.S. Open without even one. If you weren’t surprised that he turned an 8-iron around to play a righthanded shot in his win at the WGC-CA Championship in March, why would you be bewildered by what he did at the par-4 fourth – a 64-degree wedge for his third shot from the middle of the green?
“Vintage Phil,” Anthony Kim said. The 23-year-old was shaking his head, not in disbelief, but in total respect. “It was a smart play, but not a lot of people would have had the confidence to do that.”
To set the stage, Mickelson had staggered to the turn thanks to that double-bogey at the 17th, then he drove it wildly right at the par-4 first and crooked left at the par-4 third. He recovered to save par at the first, but not at the third, so having lost three strokes in five holes, the lefthander was down to 4-under.
When his approach to from 142 yards stayed on the back tier of the fourth green, Mickelson stared in dismay at his dilemma. “The slope was so severe,” he said, and his trusty caddie, Jim Mackay agreed.
“There’s no way he could have putted that and kept it within 10 feet of the hole,” Mackay said.
Thus, Mickelson handed his putter to Mackay, accepted his 64-degree wedge, and settled in over the shot. Folks in the gallery questioned one another, some offered chuckles, others gasped. But everyone stood still and just had to watch.
That is what Mickelson brings to the sport.
“There’s a reason right there to pull a yellow (caution) flag,” said NASCAR diehard Davis Love III, who stood to the side of the fourth with Kim and watched Mickelson author some short-game brilliance. He swept beneath the ball, didn’t ruffle a blade of grass on the green, and lifted it up and over that dastardly slope. When he made the putt from about 5 feet to save par, the crowd erupted.
“Never a dull moment,” Mackay quipped, and minutes later that sentiment was substantiated even further when his man at the par-5 seventh slammed a drive dead left that came to rest on a bed of pine needles amid a forest in which only Robin Hood could have felt comfortable.
“He had no shot,” Mackay said, explaining Mickelson’s decision not to pitch out (it was feared he’d run through the fairway into water), but to blast it down the tree line. The goal was to hopefully land it up near the eighth tee, but Mickelson’s ball came to rest near another tree, from where he hit a third shot that ran through the green and down a hill toward the water.
Marshals, who had spent much of their time telling fans “to move left” and “to move right” and to “watch your head, he’s coming this way,” probably could have issued warnings to pregnant women and those with heart and back problems, but there wasn’t time. Motion sickness was a very real possibility, though no one was complaining.
That, too, is the glory of Mickelson. You cannot help but watch him play, to marvel at the way in which he goes about his business, so when he got it up-and-down to save par after having never seen the fairway or a reasonable shot, there was no shock.
Just immense admiration for Phil being Phil.
Yes, it’s worth the price of admission. Always.